Thursday, 18 April 2019

Join an Easter Egg Hunt - and win free books!

Attention book lovers! I've got a challenge for you - join the Sparkly Badgers Easter Egg Hunt! I wouldn't offer a challenge without a potential reward, though - pictured below are a host of books available as prizes, including one from me, Tales From Alternate Earths 2.

So, how can you take part? Read on, below!

Do you like to read? Do you like FREE books? Come join the Sparkly Badgers Easter Egg Hunt on Facebook. All you have to do is stop over on the event page, we give you the first website, and off you go. Look for an egg on each website that links to the next one in line. Collect the letters and unscramble the anagram. Then tell us the answer to be entered in for a chance to win eBooks from some eggtastic indie authors.

You can check out each author on the event page too to find out where you can discover more of their work. Do join in, and discover a host of great new authors. 

Monday, 1 April 2019

MEET THE WRITER: Matt Dovey, on short story writing, podcast work and lessons learned in writing

At the start of this year, a chap I follow on Twitter, Matt Dovey, said that one of his things he'd like to do this year that he hadn't done before was be featured in an interview. So asked, so done. I said hey, come visit the blog and tell us about your work. And what intriguing work it is. Matt is a short story writer, with work published in the likes of the short story anthology Sword and Sonnet, and part of the team over at the Podcastle fiction podcast site. He also has a new story up today at Diabolical Plots - you can read that here. But hey, let's hear him tell you all about his work...

Hi Matt, and welcome to Altered Instinct! You’ve had quite a range of short stories published – and I know some authors who say they would struggle to condense a whole idea into a short story; what is it about the short fiction format that you most enjoy?

Thank you for having me!

Short fiction just suits my brain. I am forever being distracted by the next idea. Once my brain gets going on something, it obsesses over it, burns through its fascination with it fast, and then gets bored and wants to move on to the next thing. I'm going to have to fix that one day if I want to write a novel, but basically: short fiction lets me move as fast as my brain's fascinations, both as a reader and a writer.

This is also the only reason I have never yet gotten a tattoo: there's no idea I won't be bored of within six months.

I also think there's something pure about stripping down an idea to its absolute essentials. Short stories require merciless focus on the key moments and primary implications of a story. That allows them to be neat and tidy in a way I find very satisfying, even with an ambiguous ending.

I really loved your story Bone Poet & God over in the Sword and Sonnet anthology last year. For those unfamiliar with it, it tells a story of runic magic carved into bones, and the different factions that seek out such bones – the scavengers and those more respectful, but what I’d love to ask you about is the characters in there. The lead character’s a bear, there’s a family of badgers… what prompted you to make the choice of having animals as the central characters?

Honestly, the initial idea was entirely mercenary. Aidan famously loves bears, Elise ran Shimmer (RIP) for years with its badger motif… it started as little more than a drive to appeal to them both. (The religious aspect was for Rachael.) I suppose calling it "mercenary" is maybe a little facetious and harsh on myself: I needed a starting point to start churning ideas, and "what do the three editors like" seemed as good a set of prompts as any.

At a deeper level, I grew up on the Redwall stories. That was the first fantasy series I really sought out and consumed like it was oxygen, at around 6/7 years old. It was a shared love of Redwall at that age that led to me first meeting my future best man, as it happens (along with a healthy dose of correcting a stranger: "don't you mean Martin the Warrior, not Martian the Warrior?" as he wrote a book report. I have been on-brand my whole life). And, y'know, I live in the depths of the English countryside: I'm seeing owls and pheasants and robins and hedgehogs and badgers and voles and deer on an almost daily basis, and they've all got so much character. I enjoyed doing it so much with Bone Poet that I'm certain I'll pull a similar trick again. There's a half-finished draft of Sir Fuzz-a-Lump the Badger Knight round here somewhere, in fact.

That’s a really good anthology, full of splendid stories – what are the other stories in there that stood out to you and what was it that you loved?

It really was a phenomenal volume. It seemed like such a narrow, specific call, but the range of invention was staggering. I know I'm biased, but it really is worth a read.

Two in particular stood out for me: Dulce et Decorum Est by S L Huang posed a difficult, honest, human question about the nature of violence and war, and how the people we love most of all are still strangers to us in some ways, and how it is sometimes impossible to reconcile all the aspects of a person because we are made of contradictions and illogic. I love that it didn't condescend to offer answers, either: it just let the question echo, and was all the more powerful for it.

The other is This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers by Carlie St. George which is such an astonishing burst of fun it's impossible not to love it. It has so much energy and invention and goddamn voice. It was rattling around my heart for days. It's like mid-90's Tarantino directing Mass Effect.

I was very struck by a piece you wrote about a story you felt you made a mistake with. Readers of this blog can read more about that at length on your website (and it’s certainly lengthy but a very thoughtful response), but I’ve got a couple of questions about that – first, how hard was it for you to separate any feelings of defensiveness about the story to more openly listen to concerns; and second, it’s been some months now since you reassessed that story, how have your processes changed since then to examine things from other perspectives?

Yeah, that was a learning experience. I was very lucky with that situation, in that I was warned privately over email by a friend just after publication rather than being called out on Twitter, which gave me the space to process and get over that kneejerk defensive reaction in private. I don't know what I did to engender the good will that gave me that grace, but I'll be forever grateful for it.

It doesn't really matter how hard was it for me to get over that defensiveness because it shouldn't be about me. But I will say that the kneejerk defensiveness does not ever help. Getting called out is hard, because it's being presented with evidence that you hurt people. That's a difficult fact to assimilate into your self-image, and you instinctively want to reject it. But your self-image is always, always less important than the harm you caused to others. Even if, in the first flush of the mistake and fallout, you don't agree with what's being said ("I didn't mean it like that!" or whatever excuse your brain has), shut the hell up and listen. Because once you calm down you probably will agree with it, and keeping quiet and taking it all on board is the only way to avoid causing more harm in the moment. Disagreement and argument and denial only increase the hurt. Don't do it. Absorb it and contemplate it first.

Maybe you will turn out to disagree with it, but approach that in a measured way a few days down the line. You need to remove yourself as an individual from the equation as far as possible when responding to harm caused, and that takes time and cooling down. (I want to emphasise that I still absolutely agree with the criticisms I received.)

Processes: I'm ashamed to say that the whole damn thing just proved how much I was one more oblivious, well-meaning mountain of privilege. I thought I was special (don't we all?) and magically empathetic enough to avoid all these mistakes on my own. Turns out I'm not, who'd have guessed? I warrant the same is true for everyone. The world is too complex to understand all its nuances. I've learnt humility the hard way through this.

So I have started engaging with sensitivity readers when I know I'm brushing on topics outside my lane. I've got a forthcoming story at Cast of Wonders this year about a couple of gay teenagers that I sold just before the mess I made last year, and I asked for a hold to be put on it while I got sensitive eyes on it. Said sensitive eyes pointed out some stuff that had gone completely over my head and would have made the whole thing a really bad, entirely unintentional metaphor for AIDS. I'm still nervous about that one coming out, because now I'm more conscious of the potential for harm (and anything bad left in it is still entirely my fault), but it could have been a lot worse. I'm impossibly thankful to my sensitivity readers on that one, and to Marguerite at Cast of Wonders for understanding and accepting my request to pause without hesitation (as well as a few other details she caught later).

In terms of longer fiction, have you got something cooking? Give us a few hints about it – if you can! Side by side with that, what are your goals for publishing this year?

Hahahaha yeeeeeah, about that. I really should get round to that. I still feel like I'm learning too much, like I've got too far to go on my craft before I can dive into that, but… you never learn until you're doing it, right? At some point I'm just going to have to get on with it. There's not anything brewing right now, but it is a direction I want to go in - will go in. It's just finding an idea that can keep me occupied for 4-6 months of first-draft.

The current song of my brain weasels is that I've not yet broken into the really big name magazines - I've got a solid stable of good pro publications, enough that I actually have to look up the number these days (20!), and 2015 Matt would be astonished at my achievements - but it's human to always be looking up at the next ledge, isn't it? I want to be consistently landing at the awards-nominated venues like Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Apex and, of course, the Big Three of F&SF, Asimov's and Analog. The happy news is I just sold a flash to Analog at the back end of last year, The Movement of Other Starfish, so I'm making progress on that count!

What were some of your favourite books to read as a child? Which were the first books you remember falling in love with?

Well, Redwall mentioned above, of course - and interestingly, I've only recently come to the revelation that they're fantasy novels, aren't they? I just accepted them as they are at the time. I've got small kids now, 5 and 6, and it's astonishing how much of kids TV is science fiction and fantasy. It's simply the natural order of things at that age. No-one ever gets into speculative fiction; some people just get out of it. (The fools.)

The Alchemist's Cat and Pratchett's Bromeliad Trilogy (Diggers etc.) stick out, and Joe Dever's Lone Wolf game books too - I can vividly remember getting the Sommerswerd while sat quietly in the corner of a family wedding. David Edding's Belgariad was the first Proper Fantasy Series I read, though by the gods it does not hold up today, and I started on Discworld at 11 with Interesting Times--and that has been my absolute favourite series ever since. It's not an exaggeration to say that Discworld is this atheist's equivalent to the Bible, because so much of my moral underpinning comes from Pratchett's obvious outrage at the injustices and iniquities of the world. Vimes is my favourite character, and Night Watch is the very best of him.

What has been your favourite reaction from readers?

I'm going to have to cheat horribly and offer two answers here, because they're both such different reactions that I love for different reasons and you cannot make me choose between them no you can't no you can't.

Firstly, the comments on the Escape Pod forums for The Ghosts of Europa Will Keep You Trapped in a Prison You Make for Yourself, because it's the first time I had proof that I'd achieved what I'd set out to do--which is to say, make people cry. I'm an absolute sucker for a sacrifice story, I'll cry at 'em more often than not (goddamn Iron Giant, gets me every single time), and I wanted to capture some of that lightning for myself. Looks like I managed it for at least a few folks.

Secondly, this blog post by Alex Acks on my co-authored (with Stewart C Baker) ridiculous fantasy story from the No Shit! There I Was anthology is the post that has carried my ailing confidence through many a dark night of the soul. I can't read that post without grinning all over again. It's happening right now.

Away from books, what are your loves when it comes to TV and movies? (Altered Instinct will plant a flag on behalf of Quantum Leap, Babylon 5, Stargate, The West Wing and Star Wars, and fight to protect it!)

Probably my favourite TV series is Breaking Bad (and lately Better Call Saul) because it did such an astonishing job of being character-driven. Everything in that series flowed organically from the first decision, and it built to such a crescendo of tension. There's a scene towards the end of everything where Jesse is having dinner with Walt and Skylar and if you were coming in fresh, it'd go over the top of your head. But after 4½ seasons it was dripping with comedy and conflict just from the notion of those three sharing that moment at that point.

It's not particularly representative of my tastes, mind you, as everything else is as spec fic as you’d expect. Star Trek, obviously (TNG is my series, though I'm going through DS9 again right now and continue to believe Discovery will eventually come good), and Game of Thrones and Farscape and Orphan Black and Firefly and so on and so forth. Also Sharpe, because Sean Bean. We used to play Sharpe at lunch when I was about 10 and we'd shout at people for not pretending to load their musket properly. I have never not been a nerd.

Films, I'm big on the classic trilogies, Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Back to the Future (we had a DeLorean on our wedding cake) and Lord of the Rings. There are too many others to list.

I'm going to take this opportunity to shout about Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice on the gaming front, too, because it is the most astonishing experience I've had in thirty years of playing games. It's an extraordinary artistic achievement. It is very dark, though, so check for content warnings before you go in.

I'll happily join you in Sharpe fandom! Putting on a different hat, you are an associate editor over at the very splendid Podcastle – for readers who don’t know what that is, for shame! But it’s a splendid podcast for audio fiction. When it comes to receiving submissions, what are your big turn-offs in a story when it arrives for consideration? And conversely, what kind of things give you the oooh yes goosebumps in a submission?

I love PodCastle. I'm so proud to be there, because it's doing so much good trying to do things right, and the people involved are such wonderful people.

I don't want to be negative, so I'll just concentrate on what I love: for me, personally, that's voice. Sheer force of character through narration. Cooking Creole by Alyx Dellamonica is a good recent example, or anything by Malon Edwards (or Rabbit Grass, or We Are Sirens, or…). I'll forgive a lot of sins if something can pull me in with an assured voice. It doesn't even need to be something as overtly stylised as any of those, but just confident in itself. It's something I'm trying to protect in my own writing these days--if I'm not careful I polish the life out of a manuscript, but I think the rawness of your instinctive voice has value. It's when you're at your most you, bringing what no-one else has.

In terms of writing for audio, are there differences you feel stand out? For example, do you find stories with less dialogue work better to avoid confusing the listener, or perhaps does a first person perspective draw people in more?

As above, I think it comes down to voice, really. That'll engage you like nothing else (especially because it makes it easier for the narrator to have fun with it, and you can really notice that). Not getting too carried away with stylistic fanciness, either, and making sure there's no grammatical ambiguity, because it's much more of a pain to rewind to parse a sentence than it is to just scan backwards with your eyes.

Where can readers follow you to find out more about your work?

Everything I've had published, and a few things I've put out myself just for the heck of it, is always on my site at as soon as it can be. A lot of it is on Curious Fictions too, if people are feeling generous and want to tip.

If you want to follow and find out more about every passing banality that goes through my head, good news! That's exactly what Twitter was invented for. Well, not for my head specifically, but you get the idea. I'm @mattdoveywriter there.

A traditional question here at Altered Instinct – what are you reading at present, and what is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

Right now I'm listening to The Poppy War by R F Kuang, which starts with the cosy structure of Fantasy School (which I always love) but by halfway has already turned to something much darker. And I gather there's worse to come yet. It's an awfully good book.

I've not long mainlined both the Lady Astronaut novels (The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky) back-to-back, because oh my god I adore the Space Race aesthetic in all forms (Hidden Figures! The Race for Space!) and it ticked all those boxes and more. They both do an amazing job of rendering Elma York's anxiety, and in the second book especially I was starting to feel a painful amount of second-hand embarrassment at all the well-meaning-liberal stuff. It makes the 2013 novelette a lot more painful in hindsight, too.

Many thanks for the chat, Matt, a pleasure to learn more about your work!

Want to keep up with Matt's work? You can follow him at his website, on Facebook, or on Twitter

Friday, 29 March 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Light's Eyes, by Yvette Bostic; 250 Things You Should Know About Writing, by Chuck Wendig; Gunsmoke & Dragonfire: A Fantasy Western Anthology, edited by Diane Morrison; Horror by Cathbad, by Cathbad Maponus; The Life of Captain Marvel, by Margaret Stohl

It's time for another review round-up with Napoleon-era fantasy, Weird West gunslingers, Captain Marvel origin shake-ups and more. 

Light's Eyes, by Yvette Bostic

Light's Eyes is the second in the Light in the Darkness series from Yvette Bostic (third if you count the short prequel novella, which you really should read as part of the series) and picks up right from where the first book left off. 
It's a story of superhuman beings battling against demons during the Napoleonic War, trying to foil demonic plans to throw the world into turmoil and subvert it to their dark will. 
Now let's be honest here - this is book two. If you're interested in how this is then you're already invested. You're not going to start here. Or to quote Captain Mal Reynolds, "You can't open the book of my life and jump in the middle."
Go back to the start, begin there and I'll meet you back here once you've caught up. 
Caught up? Good. Well, this one has more of the same fast-moving adventure - but with a twist. There are new enemies to bolster the old, and new allies to help our band as they fight on the side of the angels. 
I particularly liked that the heroes keep coming to the aid of those who find themselves often trampled on by life - the occupants of a brothel, the villagers about to be steamrollered by demons, those without power on their side. 
A resolution to it all remains, of course - which on the evidence of this book will be suitably epic. 

AI Rating: 4/5
Light's Eyes is available on Amazon

250 Things You Should Know About Writing, by Chuck Wendig

For anyone who has followed Chuck Wendig on Twitter or at his blog - and if you haven't, you should - he's refreshingly free of BS when it comes to advice on writing. 
He's helpful, supportive, and doesn't waffle on about airy fairy matters. He's a sit your butt down and write kinda guy - and his 250 things you should know is in the same vein. 
It's a 250 Commandments he says you should feel free to ignore, a Desiderata with added swearing. For those who suffer a lack of motivation, or run into writer's block, having this by your computer would be no bad way to start your day. Pick it up, give yourself a jolt of unfettered writer roar, then do what the man says. 
Sit your butt down. And write. 

AI Rating: 4/5
250 Things You Should Know About Writing is available on Amazon.

Gunsmoke & Dragonfire: A Fantasy Western Anthology, edited by Diane Morrison

Out on the trails of the Old West, there are hidden places. Shadows off the path, a mystery at the far end of the journey. In those dark spaces, the weird can be found. In those places, this anthology exists, spinning tales of fantasy and horror, out there where a six-shooter may not be enough to save you. 
There might be dinosaurs lurking there, or dragons - maybe the ghosts still walking the town they used to frequent. 
I loved the range of imagination on show here. There's Joachim Heijndermans' tale of a gunslinger in a town he might be better off not picking a fight in, in When The Bell Strikes Three, the kind of story that feels like it's still lurking in The Twilight Zone, resting its boots on a boardwalk rail as the music starts to play. 
There's The Case of the Vanishing Unicorns, by James Blakey, the kind of mystery a mid-West Poirot might have loved to solve. 
I also enjoyed No-Sell, from Ricardo Victoria, taking the theme and running with it, for in a Wild West world where magic is commonplace, what use is a gun? And what would the equivalent of a snake oil salesman do with one if he had one?
Sara Codair takes the theme to the plains of Mars, with a particularly poignant tale of a broken marriage, and the tests the partners face as they try to keep their community alive. 
Then there's Brent A Harris' tale of Bass Reeves, the black lawman who inspired the legend of the Lone Ranger, here having to take on a dragon, a cracking tale of adventure. 
Diana Paxson offers a tale of an artist that offers a simmering feeling of Lovecraft to it - and there's even a Robert E Howard story, with Solomon Kane swinging into action. 
There are more than two dozen tales in here - so of course some stand out to me more than others, such is the way of anthologies. 
One note I should make - I appear in the anthology twice, once in the list of folks who backed the Kickstarter, and once as a character! I'm polishing glasses behind the bar for Robert Lee Beers' reprinted tale of time travellers arriving just in time for the San Francisco earthquake... I fear some of those glasses might get broken. 
All in all, this is a smashing way to discover a host of authors in the Weird West genre - with some great stories to read along the way. Joachim Heijndermans' story was my favourite, with Sara Codair's not far behind, but pick it up, find your own new author to love. 

AI Rating: 5/5
Gunsmoke & Dragonfire is available on Amazon.

Horror by Cathbad, by Cathbad Maponus

Horror by Cathbad is a collection from an author whose work I've enjoyed before. Here, you'll find a trio of novellas, and a bunch of short stories - some of which are super short, not even a page long. 
That said, the book doesn't skimp for length on the whole, with the stand-out stories being the novellas, Killing Dreams and Axe. 
Killing Dreams is the pick of the bunch, and it starts out the collection, telling the story of a detective trying to track down the supernatural killer of a series of criminal lowlifes. It's gruesome, it's messy, and it's gleefully fun. The identity of the killer - and the resolution - are nicely done too, with surprises in the outcome from Cathbad. 
Axe is more straightforward, a blood-filled chopfest as an axe-wielding killer makes their way through a host of unsavoury characters. 
It could do with a little bit of typo checking, but this is splatterworthy fun for a dark night's read. 

AI Rating: 4/5
Horror by Cathbad is available on Amazon

The Life of Captain Marvel, by Margaret Stohl, Carlos Pacheco, Marguerite Sauvage and Artgerm

I picked this up for free as an Amazon Prime borrow - so I can at least be glad I didn't spend any money on it, which is a good thing.
After all, what did Captain Marvel need as her movie was heading to the screens? A retcon! No, no, she did not need that. And yet here it is.
Once more the story of Captain Marvel has been messed with, and c'mon, surely Carol Danvers has had enough of a messed-up journey to deal with. From being Ms Marvel, through losing her powers, becoming Binary, back to Ms Marvel and now with the Captain title, her hither-thither history has been a bit of a mess. This doesn't do anything to clear it up, just adds on a new reason why she got her powers and saddles her with the crappiest family and childhood upbringing it can manage. Abusive father? Yup. Mother who doesn't stand up for her? Yup. There are twists in here that I won't reveal but they make the situation make even less sense.
Throw in a waste-of-space brother character who serves as nothing more than an anchor to keep Carol around, and a drippy, slightly stalkery love interest, who takes to blaming Carol the instant bad guys show up and its hard to care too much about this.
Oh and panic attacks. Now she has panic attacks too. Because that's a surefire way to help undercut the wham-bam heroics that Kelly Sue DeConick brought back to the title.
I honestly can't fathom why Marvel felt the need to retcon Carol ahead of the movie - especially as the story here doesn't match up with the story in the movie - but I think you can probably safely ignore this title on the assumption it'll be undone again in a couple of years' time.

AI Rating: 2/5
The Life of Captain Marvel is available on Amazon.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

BOOK LAUNCH: A New World: Conviction, by MD Neu

I'm delighted to welcome M.D. Neu to the blog. He's a fellow member of a Facebook writers group that I'm in, the Sparkly Badgers of Facebook, and he has a new book just launched. Read on to find out all about it, about him - and to read an excerpt from the book. 

A little blue world, the third planet from the sun. It's home to 7 billion people with all manner of faiths, beliefs and customs, divided by bigotry and misunderstanding, who will soon be told they are not alone in the universe. Anyone watching from the outside would pass by this fractured and tumultuous world, unless they had no other choice.

Todd Landon is one of these people, living and working in a section of the world called the United States of America. His life is similar to those around him: home, family, work, friends and a husband. 

After the attack on San Jose, Todd is appointed to Special Envoy for Terran Affairs by the nentraee, a position many world leaders question. Undeterred Todd wants to build bridges between both people. However, this new position brings with it a new set of problems that not only he, but his new allies Mi’ko and Mirtoff must overcome. Will the humans and nentraee learn to work together despite mistrust and threats of more attacks by a new global terrorist group, or will the terrorists win? Will this bring an end to an already shaky alliance between nentraee and humans?

Todd Landon 

With Todd’s new appointment as Special Envoy for Terran Affairs by the nentraee, his goal is to build bridges between both people. However, this position brings with it a new set of problems that not only he, but his new allies must overcome. Will humans and nentraee learn to work together despite mistrust and threats of more attacks by a new global terrorist group, or will the terrorists win?
Is this the end or is it the beginning.

M.D. Neu is a LGBTQA Fiction Writer with a love for writing and travel. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley (San Jose, California) and growing up around technology, he’s always been fascinated with what could be. Specifically drawn to Science Fiction and Paranormal television and novels, M.D. Neu was inspired by the great Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas, Stephen King, Alice Walker, Alfred Hitchcock, Harvey Fierstein, Anne Rice, and Kim Stanley Robinson. An odd combination, but one that has influenced his writing.

Growing up in an accepting family as a gay man he always wondered why there were never stories reflecting who he was. Constantly surrounded by characters that only reflected heterosexual society, M.D. Neu decided he wanted to change that. So, he took to writing, wanting to tell good stories that reflected our diverse world.

When M.D. Neu isn’t writing, he works for a non-profit and travels with his biggest supporter and his harshest critic, Eric his husband of twenty plus years.


And now for an excerpt... 


A New World-Conviction
M.D. Neu © 2019
All Rights Reserved

Chapter One
A New Life

“I believe this should be adequate.” Mi’ko checked his datapad to ensure all the proper requisitions had been finalized. He glanced around the room again with a pleased smile.
“Do you think he’ll enjoy living here?” Mi’cin asked.
They were here to inspect the quarters he had selected for Todd in the secured area of the speaker’s ship. He could have left it up to Vi-Narm or one of his other aides, but this was important and he needed to handle these details personally. Todd was important, and he wanted to make sure everything was perfect. Plus, it was an opportunity to spend more time with Mi’cin.
“Mister Todd Landon was adamant about staying in his own home and commuting, but it’s not practical.” Mi’ko ran a hand over the desk, then checked his fingers for dust. “And with the rise in protest against us across the planet, it’s not safe. Even though his government insists it is.”
“If you say so,” Mi’cin said. “He didn’t strike me as very logical after our brief meeting.” He went to one of the windows and opened it. “It would be nice to have quarters like this for myself. Does he need all this space? He’s one male.” He inhaled deeply and viewed the park below. “It smells like home. But it’s a replica, not the real place.” His nose crinkled.
“Mi’cin, don’t sulk. Our living situation isn’t that bad, and you are not a child.” Mi’ko put a hand on his son’s arm and squeezed. “I know you hurt. We all ache for our home, but these ships are our home, for now. It’s a pain we all share. By working with the humans, especially Todd, that pain and the loss of our home will lessen.”
Mi’cin’s expression fell. “Assuming the humans will work with us.”
“Please be supportive.” Mi’ko frowned. “I understand you have your misgivings, but please.” He inhaled, smelling the damp trees. “And since when have you not enjoyed the ship’s gardens?” He looked out to the woodland where several tall trees, paths, and waterways ran in countless directions.
The grounds were replicas of some of the famous parks on Benzee and her satellites. The ship’s builders gave as much space as feasible to allow people the chance to enjoy the open space. The artificial light that mimicked the day-night cycle of Benzee had gradually been adjusted to the length of Earth’s day.
“He does, indeed, have a better view than us, but that’s all right.” Mi’ko grinned and thought.
This new position for Mi’cin will help focus him. Give him a chance to interact with the humans and learn about them.
“A view of space would have been equally nice,” Mi’cin said, “but I doubt he’d be used to such a thing.” He turned back to the window. “Such a waste.”
“I assure you it’s not a waste.” Mi’ko ran a hand over the soft fabric of the chair. “Considering the nature of this position. Plus, I thought a view of nature and all the fresh scents would make him feel more at home. It will give him a sense of what Mentra Park was like.”
Mi’cin clucked his tongue.
“What?” Mi’ko questioned. “That was one of your favorite parks on Mentra. You made me take you there whenever we went to visit my parents. You loved the views of Benzee.”
Mi’cin said nothing.
“Mi’cin, please.”
“As you wish, Father.”
“I’d like to ask you to assist Mister Todd Landon to help him acclimate,” Mi’ko said. “It’s going to be hard for him at first. Even though he’s been studying our language and culture—”
Mi’cin’s sigh muted his father. “Of course. I’ll do my best. You have my word. Besides, isn’t that what your aide is supposed to do?”
“True, but this is the first time I’ve had an aide who’s my son.”
“Well, Vi-Narm can’t do it all, and your other aides are busy,” Mi’cin said. “I can use the experience, as you and Mother both keep telling me.”
“I can think of no one better to support me.” Mi’ko focused on his son. “You know, you’re both very quizzical, so you will be good for each other. I hope you can become friends.” He reached out and gently touched Mi’cin on the cheek.
A soft chirp came from the door. It opened to reveal Vi-Narm. Her tightly braided hair had a few wisps out of place; her breathing was heavy.
“Vice speaker, there is a problem with the Envoy position. General Gahumed, with the support of General Fanion, is calling for a special session in the council chamber.”
“What now?” The muscles around Mi’ko’s eyes twitched and the tips of his ears started to warm. It had been like this for several weeks. These continued issues with his own people were taking far too much of his time.
“Thank you for picking me up.” Todd glanced over at Mi’cin, who sat in the black sedan with him. He was jealous at how everything Mi’cin wore seemed to fit him perfectly. Particularly with his bright green eyes and his perfect soft brown hair.
He looks a lot like his mom.
“You are welcome,” Mi’cin said.
“I’m a little nervous.”
“It is understandable.” Mi’cin focused on his datapad. "Your ace has inferior space travel, but I can assure you it is as safe as flying in one of you antiquated airships.”
Todd clasped his hands in front of him, resting them on his padfolio. The news of Mi’cin now being one of Mi’ko’s junior aides made him personally uncomfortable, especially after the questions Mi’cin asked at the White House dinner. Professionally, it was a good opportunity. They would both be learning, which meant he wouldn’t be the only one screwing up.
“How do you like the new job?” Todd asked.
“The position is a challenge. However, it is putting some of my knowledge to use. I, like you, have much to learn.” Mi’cin spared a glance at Todd.
Todd sighed.
“What’s wrong?”
“You mean, more than getting on one of your shuttles?” He continued with a forced smile. “My cat, Bianca. I’m leaving her behind, and I’m going to miss her.”
Mi’cin was quiet a moment. “You are close with your animal companion?”
Todd nodded.
“As I’m sure Vi-Narm informed you. We do not yet know how you feline will react to our closed environment and what feline-carried bacterium could do to our cádo and other animals. It is too much of a risk.”
Todd stared at his hands and his padfolio.
“Interesting. It is clear this conversation make you unhappy and is not something you wish to continue.” Mi’cin tapped his fingers over his datapad. “You personal belongings will be sent to you new quarters. I am glad we reached a satisfactory solution with you living accommodations and maintaining you residence on Earth.” He slipped the datapad away and tapped his hand on his leg.
“Well, it’s home, you know? There’re a lot of ghosts there.” Todd rubbed his hands on his legs. “It’s hard to just pack up and move, especially since I can’t bring Bianca.”
“Ghosts? You mean nayus, spirit energy?” Mi’cin leaned in.
Todd chuckled.
Wow. A part of human culture that actually interests him.
“No, it’s just a human—well, English…American—saying. It means a lot of memories.”
“Memories of you husband? Of the life you had?” Mi’cin asked.
“Yes, that’s all part of it.” He glanced out the car window, not wanting to talk about it. He hoped Mi’cin wouldn’t pry. Was it prying, or was he trying to make conversation? The Nentraee, and Mi’cin in particular, were so formal and stiff it was hard to read his body language.
“I will have to check into that. American English colloquialisms are difficult to understand.” Mi’cin pulled out his datapad.
“You’ll want to add researching the differences on when to use ‘you’ and ‘your,’” Todd said.
Mi’cin made notes on his datapad. “Thank you, Mister Todd Landon.”
Once the sedan pulled up to the Nentraee checkpoint, they got out. The Nentraee security watched them. Mi’cin withdrew a plastic card that looked like a credit card, and the security person scanned it. They spoke quiet enough Todd missed what they said, but he still picked up on musical qualities in their accent.
Sadly, they speak better English than I do Nentraee even with their missteps and incorect word choices.
“Welcome, Special Envoy Mister Todd Landon,” the security guard said with a thick, lyrical Nentraee tone. He was a tall male with fair features. He had blue eyes and dirty-blond hair.
Mi’cin stopped and turned to Todd. With pursed lips, he quickly returned to the sedan, shaking his head, the tips of his ears seemed a bit swollon and they definitely had hinks of blue. Mi’cin pulled out an envelope. He immediately headed back to Todd.
“Forgive me.” He handed the envelope over. “Mister Todd Landon, these are the diplomatic papers and identification you will need.”
Grinning, Todd opened the envelope. The papers were mostly written in the Nentraee language, but some of it was in English.
“Do you need my passport?”
The guard processed the question. “No need, but please keep…Nentraee badge at all times. The other papers are…records.”
Todd found the card in the envelope and handed it to the guard.
“The card is encrypted with”—he pointed at Todd—“DNA,” the guard added.
That explained the physical exam. Both groups, human and Nentraee, wanted to monitor his physical reaction to the Nentraee environment. He pocketed the ID badge, placing it with his passport and pocket watch. The two items that reminded him of who he was. One a government-issued identifcation and the second a gift from Varick, his former boss. He was also the man who, if not for him, Todd really wouldn’t be here.
It was because of that first meeting with the Nentraee that Todd was here today. It was also because of Varick Jerry died. No, not Varick per se, but because of the terrorist who blew up all those people and destroyed parts of San Jose. Varick, like Todd, was an innocent victim. He sighed at the memories, feeling the slight tick of the watch. It was now his anchor to home. He put the rest of the paperwork in his padfolio as they walked over to the shuttle.
Wow! So, that’s a Nentraee shuttle. I wonder what makes it fly? I wish Jerry were here to see this.
From the outside, the shuttle seemed more like a large private jet. However, the design was organic and smooth. Everything was seamless—even the windows didn’t appear to have a starting or stopping point. It seemed to be one solid piece.
Mi’cin vanished through the access port, but Todd stopped, for a nervous second, before following him.
I can’t believe this. I’m getting on a spaceship. A real live spaceship with a real live alien. So freaking cool.
“Please, have a seat, Mister Todd Landon.” Mi’cin sat as well.
Todd examined the interior. His stomach flipped with excitement or was it worry; he wasn’t sure which. The inside of the shuttle was much like a private jet or what he thought one would be like. Various seats swiveled with retractable tables and workstations. He ran his hand along one of the windows.
“It’s not glass?”
“No. We use a transparent metal. There is no human word for it,” Mi’cin said.
Todd nodded as he continued his examination. On one side of the cabin was a couch and, across from that, a large screen displaying the Nentraee government seal. There was a smaller gray panel next to it. The cabin door in the back was emblazoned with the same seal as the large monitor. By the ship’s front entry was what Todd thought must be the flight-deck door.
“This is the vice speaker’s private shuttle. You and I, as well as the rest of his staff, will travel in this ship. It is equipped for diplomats to travel, and it is relatively comfortable. It can even be used for small meetings, should there be a need.” Mi’cin pointed to the back. “There is a private compartment, which is for the vice speaker’s use only. He and Vi-Narm are coded to open the cabin door.”
Todd nodded.
“We will also use this shuttle for ship-to-ship travel,” Mi’cin explained, starting to swipe information from his datapad to the terminal in front of him.
One of the security personnel entered the main entry port, placing his whole hand on a panel next to it, which closed the door. If they end up working with CRiNE, they wouldn’t need to use their whole hand, just their finger, assuming the deal was approved.
I hope that all works out. It would be good for Varick.
“We leave shortly,” the guard said, moving to the front of the ship. The flight-deck door closed behind him.
“How long will the flight take?” Todd ran his hand over the chair. The material was soft and cool to the touch—like leather, but silkier. They were cream with touches of dark blues throughout. The chairs and couches were embroidered with a Nentraee symbol.
“Not long. Two and half standard hours, perhaps less. Travel is longer in the atmosphere. Our ship’s engines have to counter gravity, and the Federal Aviation Administration rules, but once we are in space and beyond the satellites, we will move faster. Much like the human space station and rockets, outside of gravity, travel becomes much easier and faster.”
“I see.”
This is how the uber-rich must travel when they fly.
Mi’cin focused on his datapad.
Todd stopped watching what Mi’cin was doing and gazed out the window in silence. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but it amazed him when they lifted off and there was no noise. The airport grew smaller as they ascended. This was nothing like air travel. It was smooth and quiet, with no large engines and no pressurization, nothing clued him into their liftoff.
As Todd continued to check out the cabin, he thought Mi’cin observed him. Todd even thought he saw the alien smile.
When the shuttle transitioned to space just beyond Earth’s atmosphere, there was a contrast between the dark of space and the blue of the planet below. The curve of the blue world had a hard edge with a few white clouds breaking it up.
Todd gasped and dug his fingers into the seat. “Dear God.”
“Are you all right?” Mi’cin’s voice was tight and loud.
“I’ve never… I mean, we’re in space. That’s Earth. We’re really in space. I wasn’t expecting. I mean…this…wow.”
“I assure you, we are perfectly safe,” Mi’cin said. “I was never impressed with space travel, not even when we went to Mentra or one of the other satellites or stations around our world. It was routine. I do not even remember hearing of accidents.”
“How can you not be impressed? This is absolutely incredible. I should have taken a shuttle ride before this. I need my phone to take some pictures.” The lump in his stomach started to lessen. He felt his pockets, but, of course, he didn’t find his phone. It would have to be modified to work with the Nentraee systems anyway.
“Why don’t you enjoy the view? We will reach the fleet soon. I assure you, there will be plenty of opportunities for you to take photos.” Mi’cin grinned at him. “It only gets more interesting from here.”
“I wish Brad could see this.”
“You, or is it your?”
Mi’cin tapped on his datapad. “Your brother?” Mi’cin questioned.
“Yep. Man, he would love this. He’s very much chomping at the bit to see one of your ships. His trip to the cultural ship only made him want to see more. He’s always been into the idea of space travel. I guess that’s why he’s working for NASA.” Todd’s cheeks were getting sore from the smile.
“Well, as soon as all the details are worked out, he and your" - he glanced over to Todd and Todd nodded—“friends will be able to come visit you as often as you would like.” Mi’cin’s eyes narrowed and his face became more serious as he checked the datapad. “Ah, the files on ghosts and American colloquialisms have loaded.”
Todd ignored him as he enjoyed the view from the window. The rest of the trip was silent while Mi’cin reviewed his device and Todd took in the sights of Earth and all the Nentraee ships. The alien ships made the International Space Station look like a child’s homemade space project using toilet paper rolls and tinfoil.
How backward we must seem to them.
Todd leaned forward to see out the window.
These ships are huge. No wonder some of them are visible from Earth. Man, look at all those smaller ships rushing about.
Todd wasn’t sure what he had expected, even with the photos provided by NASA and the Nentraee. Perhaps boxy, clunky ships that had no style, built solely to evacuate as many people as possible. But these ships, much like the shuttle, had an organic appearance. They showed wear and tear, and various small pod-type vehicles attached to the larger craft, providing maintenance. Quick flashes of light sparked from the areas where repairs had to be made. Even so, everything about them appeared seamless, as if made of a single piece of metal.
“My God, the Ràdo,” Todd mumbled, opening his padfolio and pulling out the photo of the battle cruiser.
The Rádo’s design was nothing like the civilian ships. Blocky armor plating covered the hull. No clear grand domes or view ports showed themselves. Instead, a smattering of small pinholes, like portholes, at the bottom of a ship, where light emitted from the inside. The only things larger than the huge cannons, breaking from the hull, were the oversized drives—one on each side—meant for intercepting and outmaneuvering. What appeared to be sensor arrays broke from different points of the ship, all varying sizes of spiky masts. Smaller plasma, or laser, gun turrets popped out like mushrooms all over the vessel. Several large communication dishes towered near the top of the beastly ship. The utilitarian crafts attending it were like ants caring for their queen; nothing compared to this monster.
He shuddered.
We would never stand a chance against them if they decided to attack.
The shuttle turned. The battleship disappeared from view, while the speaker general’s ship came into sight.
“Wow,” Todd whispered.
Larger than the Ràdo, the speaker general’s ship had sleek lines with huge windows and clear domes, a beautiful ship unlike the battle cruiser. Todd could see plants and what looked like blue sky inside. A floating city in space with smaller ships, shuttles, and pods dancing around it.
“You must have an impressive flight-control system to keep the ships from running into one another,” Todd said toward the window. When no response came, he turned. Mi’cin was busy, his head buried behind his terminal. Todd sat in silence as the outside crafts went about their business. Their shuttle reached the docking bay and came to a soft landing.
At the soft chirp of his device, Mi’cin lifted his head. “Welcome to the speaker general’s ship, the center of the Nentraee government, and your new home, Mister Todd Landon.” He stood as the door to the ship opened and he gestured to the docking bay. “Are you ready?”
Todd got up from his chair.
I’m gonna need a map.
Todd held his breath as they made their way past security and all the their ships coming and going. The docking bay was like an airport—there were all kinds of Nentraee rushing about. They rushed by faster than he could take it all in before they left the docking bay.
The small corridor opened up into a grand gallery with murals of different Nentraee and what had to be their home world. Some showed battles, others pointed to space with their planet behind. Another had a native female addressing a large crowd in a domed city with their home world behind them. One of the largest murals showed several Nentraee under a domed floating spaceship in between the Nentraee home world and their moons.
“What is that?” Todd stopped and pointed.
“That was Calda,” Mic’in stopped. “One of our largest orbiting cities. I believe it was home to twenty thousand Nentraee.” He sighed and his lips turned into a frown. “We were unable to save it during the evacuation of our world.”
“I’m sorry.”
Mi’cin was quiet and continued walking.
The passageway was filled with bright light and all manner of Nentraee rushing about. In addition to the pounding sounds of a crowd, Todd’s head filled with a symphony of Nentraee voices.
Mi’cin moved them along so quickly that Todd didn’t have a chance to appreciate the beauty of the ship. He passed through a giant arch that led to open spaces two or three football fields deep. When they finally reached the door to his new quarters, Mi’cin stopped.
“So this is it?” Todd asked.
“Yes. The door has been programmed for you.”
The wide corridor had soft flooring in neutral colors. Doors and a few windows lined both walls, all the way down to the end of the hall where a large glass opening provided a view of open space. Embedded in the walls, lighting filled the area, making it welcoming and secure.
This looks like one of those high-end luxury apartment buildings.
He moved closer to the door, and it slid open. “Neat trick.”
“You have automatic doors on…your planet.” Mi’cin’s head tilted.
Todd grinned and walked in.
“We tried to make things as familiar for you as possible,” Mi’cin said. “You will see you have a kitchen similar to what you have on Earth. In the study there”—Mi’cin pointed—“you have you…no your terminal that has been coded directly for you to use. You will be able to communicate with Earth from there as well. It has secure links to your planet’s antiquated datanet; I believe you refer to it as the internet.”
Man, Jerry would have loved that and been able to explain how they were able to do it.
Todd sighed.
Mi’cin ran his hand over several small devices. “There are various datapads for you to use. They should be familiar to what you have on Earth. Of course, ours are faster with additional features, such as three-dimensional imaging, bio scanners, multiholographic interfaces as well as other advances. You should find them easier to use.” He picked one up and tapped the device, causing it to activate. “They interface with any computer terminal on the ship that you have access to. There are also virtual visual interfaces you can use, should you be without a datapad or not near a terminal.” He put the datapad back on the desk. “We’ve equipped everything to work with you personal tablet device, phone, and the bulky portible computer device you own.”
“You mean my laptop?” Todd’s eyes narrowed.
“Laptop. Yes. That is what I meant. Thank you.”
“Great. That’ll be nice. I do hope your systems are in English, though. I’m still having trouble with your language.”
“We’ve modified them, yes. It will directly translate our language to yous…” Mi’cin stopped. “Yours?” he questioned, and Todd nodded. “And the other way around. We also enabled it to translate other human languages to English for you. The translation matrix is almost perfect; however, if you find a mistake, please report it. As you have already done with my use of your. The rest should be easy to figure out.”
Todd went to the window. “Wow! It’s beautiful. Is this what we passed on our way here?” The trees would make the redwoods of Muir Woods seem like saplings. The air had hints of what he thought might be pine, but that didn’t seem quite right because it also smelled sweet. Streams gurgled and waterfalls splashed. The sounds of nature amazed him.
“Yes.” Mi’cin joined him. “This is one of the many gardens on the ship. This park is a smaller replica of the one on Mentra, the second satellite that orbited our home world.”
“So beautiful. Thank you so much.” Todd’s face brightened into a grin. “I’ve always wanted a house with a view. I can’t imagine the work that went into all this.”
“The original park was almost ten times the size.” Mi’cin pointed. “I went there as a child. It was a favorite place.” He turned from the window, changing the topic. “Your…sleeping quarters are through there.”
Todd broke from gazing out the window and turned to Mi’cin.
Mi’cin gestured to one of the closed doors. “Along with a bathing room. If you would like to change the internal environment, that will be up to you. This is now…your home, and we want you to be comfortable here.” He ran a hand over the furniture. “I understand how humans like to leave their mark on things.”
Todd nodded and turned back to the window.
There was a soft bing and Mi’cin pulled out his datapad. “Your personal effects should be here in a couple of hours, once they are scanned and cleared.”
Todd wasn’t giving Mi’cin his full attention; he continued to check out the view of the park.
“You miss your home, don’t you?” Todd asked as the trees drifted back and forth and the water splashed.
“This has been my home for a long time.” Mi’cin stood a little taller, crossing his arms over his chest.
“It’s not the same.” He faced Mi’cin. Todd’s expression remained flat.
“No, it is not, but it is what we have left, and we have to make do.” Mi’cin shifted his stance, a blueish tinge at his neck.
Todd’s lips pinched together.
“As part of my duties, I will have Earth delicacies brought here once a week to stock the kitchen.”
He opened a cabinet door in the kitchen, revealing dishes, mugs, and cups. Todd would have to inspect them later.
“If there are special needs you require, you can compile a list, and I will do what I can to get them for you. The costs will be adjusted in your compensation, similar to that of your nonbusiness transport back to Earth. Our hope is that you will want to try our food.” He closed the cabinet door. “Our doctors assure us that our bodies have a similar digestion, so there should be no physiological issues.”
“Mi’cin, I can’t imagine how difficult this all must be. This place…” Todd looked around the apartment. “I’m sure this space was meant for more than just one person.”
He met Mi’cin’s eyes and could sense Mi’cin’s sadness.
“Your words are appreciated.” Mi’cin bowed.
“Thank you. Thank you for everything.” He walked around the space that was now his new home.
Mi’cin bowed again and moved to the door. “Mister Todd Landon. Would you like to see the rest of the ship? I am sure there are several of my people who would like to meet you. They have only seen humans from the broadcasts and the media or on the cultural ships. You might find it interesting.”
“That would be great.” Todd shook out his hands and bit his lower lip. “Mi’cin, can you and the others please call me Todd? We don’t use our full names. It’s a little awkward to hear my full name all the time.”
“Of course, Todd.” Mi’cin pulled out his datapad and made a note. “This time will give us a chance to get to know each other better, and I can share more about my home world with you, and you will be able to practice our language. I can also show you where you can shop and buy items for your life here.”


It had been a long day. Todd looked around the study as he got comfortable in the chair.
“I hope you enjoyed the tour of our ship and the company of my son,” Mi’ko inquired. “I hope he did not overwork you…no I believe Mi’cin said it would be your…recovering leg?”
“My leg is fine, almost completely forgotten. I’m supposed to exercise it, so the walk did me good, and Mi’cin didn’t go too fast.” Todd shifted his position on the chair as his leg tingled.
It was fine until we started talking about it. Now, not so much.
Mi’ko’s family apartment had more space than Todd’s. A big living room and kitchen with separate dining area. A hall off the kitchen led to what he assumed were bedrooms. On the opposite side of the general living space, a guest bathroom and a study could be found. Even with all the extra space, the apartment had a tight feel for the number of people who lived there. They seemed, however, to make it home. Plants and books, as well as different trinkets of what he thought to be art or decorative pieces occupied the space. Warm, but neat, furniture and an enjoyable woodsy scent completed the comfortable feel.
Mi’cin had brought him home for his first meal on the ship. It seemed like some kind of fish with rice and a vegetable dish. It was good, despite him being leery about not knowing what it all was.
I’m going to have a lot of research tonight.
The family dynamics fascinated him. Even though the older boys lived elsewhere, they were expected to enjoy dinner together. It would remain that way until they had families of their own. After dinner, they were excused by Laina. It was nice seeing them in this light.
We’re so much alike.
“This whole day has been amazing. The ship, the people, the food, everything’s remarkable. I can’t get over your technology. I’m sure every government has been after you to share it. You must be hundreds of years more advanced than us.”
“Actually you—your?” Todd nodded and Mi’ko continued, “Your space technology in this area isn’t that much farther behind ours. Of course, there are some differences: gravitational fields, resource reclamation, and our drive technology. But yes, they have asked about it.” He put his drink on the table. “We are considering it.”
“My brother would love to see all your ships. He sent me a text again last night, reminding me about it.”
Mi’ko sipped his drink.
Todd wasn’t sure what the name of the drink was, even though he had asked a couple of times. A’cen or A’xen, something like that. It had a fruity chocolate kind of flavor.
“Mi’ko, Mister Vice Speaker, may I ask a quesiton?” Todd sat back in his seat.
“Of course.” Mi’ko put down his glass.
“I don’t want to offend you, but why am I here?” Todd touched his chest with both hands. “I’m not a diplomat. I’m not a scholar, and I’m certainly not one of the great minds of my people.”
Mi’ko nodded with a polite smile.
“Not to mention, no one wants me here except for you and maybe the speaker general,” Todd said. “Hell, not even my own people want me here. Sure, everyone is pleasant enough and helpful when need be, but…” He frowned. “Even Mi’cin and Vi-Narm don’t want me here.”
The tips of Mi’ko’s ears turned blue and almost seemed to get bigger. He hadn’t seen this bodily reaction before on the vice speaker.
Maybe I offended him.
“It could be me. I don’t know.” Todd tried to backstep, seeing Mi’ko’s reaction. “They are nice enough, and Mi’cin did take me around today, but it all seemed forced. Like I’m an obligation, a task to be tolerated.” He took a breath. “I’m sorry. I mean no disrespect, but none of this makes any sense. Even my own government has…”
“Your government has concerns about our choice.” Mi’ko rubbed the tips of his ears, and the color and swelling started to fade.
“Putting it delicately, yes.” He laughed, sitting back, feeling absorbed by the same softness as the furniture in the shuttle.
“My son and Vi-Narm have also made their opinions clear on the matter. I apologize if it has made you uncomfortable.”
“I’m sorry if I sound like I’m whining. Mi’cin is fine and Vi-Narm…” Todd raked his hand through his hair. “We’ll figure out a way to work together, but that doesn’t explain why I’m here.”
So many people were heroes the day of the attack. What makes me so special?
Mi’ko turned to the bookshelf. “There is a book—” He pointed to a shelf. “—Laina pulled down for me to review. It was the night I wrote the declaration that allowed you to come here and possibly stopped an armed conflict with your people.”
It was Todd’s turn to nod; the government people had told him this in a briefing. He didn’t need to be told to keep it quiet. He wasn’t dumb. Still, he was sure people had found out, and it was probably why people were down there protesting.
“Todd, our two cultures are very different,” Mi’ko said. “Even among your world with so many different cultures, we find ourselves with very little to compare it to.” He stopped. “I didn’t lie to you when we talked of this at the hospital. It is a challenge to find the correct words.”
“I’ve done hours of research on this position,” Todd started. “I haven’t found anything about it.” He leaned in a bit more.
“Nor would you. It wasn’t part of our cultural information we provided your people. This honor predates the Clan War and many of our current laws; it is, as you would say, outdated.”
“So, before your world’s great war?” Todd said. He had learned that the clans were basically the various Nentraee races; however, prior to the Clan War, they rarely mixed. It was because of that isolationist ideology the clans went to war.
A global race war.
“Very good. You have done your research. Before the war, in order to try to build peace among our people, and within the clans themselves, we would have a special envoy from different warring factions. Our clans were small, not like what we have now. There were subgroups within the clans. The envoy would live and work within the group to understand them.” Mi’ko stopped and stared at his hands before continuing.
“How they lived. How they raised their families. How they worshiped. Learn what it was to be part of that clan. What made them special.” He turned to Todd. “With the purpose to avoid another war. As times changed, and the clans merged, these positions became rarer and more prestigious. They ranked higher than any diplomat and were extremely important to the group, and later to the clans. The goal was a simple one: peace.”
“So I’m kind of like a peace offering?”
“I do not think I understand the reference.”
Todd shook his head. “Um, it’s a gift you give in order to avoid war or a fight. Anyway, I think I understand what you mean.”
“All right.” Mi’ko continued. “We haven’t used this position in hundreds of years. After the Clan Wars, there was no reason. We were at peace, and we had to rebuild our world. But now, after the attack and the fear that more conflict was to come, we thought it might help.”
“So, why not have a person from each country? And more importantly, why me?”
“I would have thought that would be clear by now, Todd. You represent everything we value in a being.” Mi’ko’s face grew bright. “Just like with the envoys of old, they were selected not by their own people, but by the other group or clan they had been at war with. How else do you learn? How else do you gain peace?” He leaned in. “If you are given a diplomat, one trained by the government, they only have the interest of that government at heart.” His lips split into a smile. “As it should be, but that is why these people were so valued; they were normal everyday people. What set them apart was that the individual acted in an extraordinary manner and their action gained the trust of the other group.” He reached back to check on his tieback. “It was a deed that caught their eye; a kind gesture, a brave act, an act of gentleness, it could have been anything. No one knew, so no one could plan for it, because it could have been anything that caught the leader’s attention.”
“Like saving the life of the vice speaker.”
I guess that does make me a bigger hero than I thought I was.
“Your act of bravery was beyond anything we could have known would have happened here.” Mi’ko adjusted in his seat, his voice becoming softer. “Now I ask you, how better to learn of a people than by a male who would sacrifice himself for a stranger, an alien, a potential monster?” His brows raised and the smile grew bigger. “That is a person worth knowing, and that is a person worth having learn about us. Who we are.” Mi’ko found his drink again and sipped it. “That is why you are here, and that is why you are my special envoy, reporting only to me.”
“I had no idea how special this appointment is.” Todd picked up his drink and took another taste. “This is very good, by the way. It’s like a chocolate-covered strawberry.” He took another sip and felt the ticking of his timepiece.
Remember, be the man you want to be. The one everyone thinks you are.
“I’m glad you are enjoying it.” Mi’ko finished his drink. “I hope you will enjoy many things here with us. You know, sometimes, we do not get to pick what we want. Sometimes, what is really needed gets picked for us by some higher power. Its meaning not fully understood until everything plays out; keep that in mind when you question why you are here.”