Wednesday, April 22, 2015 2 comments

Writing Wibbles: Exclusivity, and Why it Shouldn’t be So Attractive

Last week, Indie ReCon kicked off with a talk with Mark Coker of Smashwords, called What Authors Need to Know in 2015. Of course, toward the end of the session, Coker delivered a soliloquy about the perils of exclusivity (specifically, KDP Select).

Steakburgers or dog food?
Okay, there are some really good points to make about being widely available. The problem is threefold:
  • I don’t doubt there are a lot of people like me out there, with books distributed pretty widely (thanks in part to Smashwords), who end up with over 95% of sales coming from Amazon. When I’ve sold over 17,000 Accidental Sorcerers books on Amazon, and a few hundred through Smashwords, I can’t see much downside to exclusivity.
  • There’s a big ecosystem of review and promotional sites built around Amazon exclusivity. Many promo sites are designed around KDP Select’s free days and countdown days. Some sites ask directly for an ASIN (the unique ID that Amazon assigns to each product they sell) instead of a general link.
  • There are other real benefits to being in KDP Select, for those who use those benefits. My co-op partner thinks I’m nuts for not using them, and sometimes I have to wonder if she’s right.
If Mark Coker wants a dent in KDP Select, he and Smashwords likely need to help make that dent—people aren’t going to give up what KDP Select offers without a good reason (where good reason may be defined as solid sales). That probably means sponsoring—or even starting—Smashwords-friendly review sites, and even helping to promote books that are doing reasonably well on Amazon but not on other sites.

As for promotion, Amazon has a huge mailing list that they use to target books to potential readers. My books have appeared on mail blasts a number of times. What is Smashwords doing to get books noticed? I don’t just mean the top sellers (which usually don’t need help), I’m talking about titles with decent sales that might become a top seller with a little help.

Until Mark Coker can answer those questions, KDP Select will continue to be a popular choice for many indies.

Monday, April 20, 2015 2 comments

Blink: Superhero Summer Camp, episode 18

Blink’s earlier adventures:

Blink
Blink’s First Adventure | 2 | 3 | 4

Superhero Summer Camp (this one): 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17



Blink met with Nixi and Sarika in front of the elevators on level F-2 the next morning, as they had for the last month.

“Oh yeah,” said Nixi. “Cap messed up his ankle last night. I guess it’s just us this morning.”

“I don’t want to go alone,” Sarika huffed, taking Blink’s hand.

“We can go together,” Blink suggested. “All three of us. We know the route by now.”

Sarika scowled, looking between Blink and Nixi. Nixi just smirked, while Blink racked his brains.

“Seriously,” he said at last. “We should go together. That way, your mom can’t say we were out there alone. I don’t want to get on her bad side. She saved my life and all, you know.”

“I guess,” Sarika huffed.

“Let’s take this golf cart,” said Nixi. “The keys are in it.” The look she gave Blink said high-maintenance.


“So what have you been doing this summer?” Blink asked Sarika, as Nixi jogged behind them.

“I’ve been working in the Advanced Research department,” she replied. “We’re gonna take the pieces of the battle-bots you guys destroyed and make new ones. Security can use them.”

“There was something left?”

“Well, you and that villain wrecked the bottom halves, and Mama and the other Devis destroyed top halves. There was enough left to make seven whole ones, and a bunch of spare parts. So we’re dropping everything to get that done this week. We’ll need to reprogram them all, too.”

“You should get Nixi to do that.”

“It’s a different set of skills,” Nixi said from behind. “They’re doing embedded software, and I’m doing web development. I could learn what needs to be done, sure, but by the time I could help, it would be time to go back to school. And the intranet wouldn’t get done.” She chuckled. “That’s why Uncle Zero didn’t have them fix the intranet. I already knew what to do.”

“Yeah.” Blink turned back to Sarika. “That’s this week. What have you been doing the rest of the summer?”

“Captain Heroic has been helping with some gadget designs. I’ve been interning, mostly helping him out.”

“That’s cool.”

“Yeah. Well, Captain Heroic isn’t here to escort me back to that side of the facility, so I guess I can eat breakfast with you.” Sarika gave him a dazzling smile.

“Yeah… uh, that’s great,” he said. “Do you eat meat, though? They serve a lot of bacon and eggs.”

“No, but what about pancakes? I can eat pancakes.”

“Yeah,” Nixi said from behind, between breaths. “We get pancakes.”

“Good,” Sarika replied. “So I’ll eat with you, then I’ll go back to my stuff.”


After breakfast, Captain Heroic and Professor Zero took Blink to a conference room in the public-facing building. “This is a standard debriefing,” Professor Zero told him. “You and Cap both need to describe what happened last night, in your own words. And don’t correct the other one. Each one of you will have a chance to tell your side, okay?”

“Yeah,” said Blink. Captain Heroic nodded; Blink figured he’d been through a thousand of these. The oldest and youngest superheroes described their roles, and both found the other’s stories to have only the smallest discrepancies.

“Okay,” said Professor Zero, “now I need Blink to tell me about his encounter with Warmonger. What was said. Don’t worry about details. I want them all. Start with when you reached the highway.”

“Yeah,” Blink replied, reliving the moment. “There were two eighteen-wheelers parked out at the road—”

“They probably brought the ABAs,” said Zero. “Do you remember any markings?”

“They didn’t have any. I don’t think. So I started walking, and Warmonger stopped and offered me a ride.”

Zero leaned forward, pen poised. “Then what?”

“Well, he said something to get me mad, and he had to stop and pick up the back of his Jeep a few times. Then, he told me—I need to ask you guys something.”

Zero and Captain Heroic looked at each other. “What did he say?” Zero asked, sounding wary.

“Why do you—we—provide free security for the mega-rich people?” Blink asked, trying to keep his outrage in check. “Why is it up to the villains to keep them from eating everyone else?”

“Blink, it’s a lot more complicated than that,” Zero replied. “It’s… well, it’s hard to explain.”

“You’re the genius,” said Blink. “You need to figure out how to explain it. Because I’m not sure I want to be a hero like that. Grimes Financial about threw us out of our house, andand—” he trailed off, sputtering.

“I understand,” said Captain Heroic. “You don’t want to defend them. You won’t have to, though. When you’re active, you can find your own niche. But as a hero, okay? We made a deal.”

“Yeah.”

“What bothers me,” said Professor Zero,” is that Type I superheroes are genetic. That means you have an ancestor with superpowers, and I don’t mean a distant ancestor. Grandparents at most.”

“Huh.” Blink thought a moment. “My grandparents are pretty normal.”

“That’s the point of a secret identity,” said Captain Heroic. “Can you think of anything about them that seems… oh, I don’t know. A little off?”

“Nuh-uh. Maybe if I knew what to look for. Some of the stuff Mom did to keep our house was pretty amazing, though.”

“Mothers are natural superheroes,” said Professor Zero. “But if you think of anything, use the Secure Message app to contact me.”

to be continued…

Friday, April 17, 2015 3 comments

Of Made and Born, pt 2 of 2 (#FridayFlash)

The conclusion to last week’s post



Matos stood quiet a long moment, then heaved a deep sigh. “No. But how…? We have children!”

“Your new ‘friends’ have fed you on lies and half-truths. They point to the monsters that corrupt Makers unleash upon the world, and tell you that is all the works of the Makers. They point to the newly Made, or those fashioned by the slothful, and tell you that those mockeries are all the Made. I Made Dawna for you the day after you bared your soul to me, but it was a month before she was ready to meet you. I Made her clever, honest, and above all loyal—but her story, her life history, that took longer—and like the free will that the Born are naturally given, I gave her the free will to choose you or not. If I and my champion live the night, I will do the same for him.”

Inspiration struck me, as it often does at odd moments, and I fed it to the newly Made. The champion spoke again: “I am Chell, of the Seven Guardians! I have sworn to protect all those, Made and Born, who suffer injustice!”

“I have always trusted you, Zand.” Matos’s voice dropped to a near whisper. “Why did you not tell me?” He lowered his sword and reached for Dawna; ever loyal and intelligent, she took his hand. “Did you not trust me?”

I bowed my head. “Matos, I have sinned against you. I did not reveal myself out of cowardice. You know how it is with Makers. Where your new friends do not hunt us, we are shackled by the mighty to Make them even more of what they already have. Or among the poor, we are mobbed to Make the very stuff of life. One wrong word at the wrong moment, and I would be dead or captive, or overwhelmed by the needs of the moment, or on the run. As I may be this night, if my—if Chell must fight while I flee.

“You must choose, my friend. Will you renounce the Cult this night and embrace Truth? Or… or choose the other way?”

“Perhaps they themselves are misled? They have not seen the whole truth?” Matos looked uncertain once again.

“I suppose it possible, but unlikely. But if so, do you think that you could convince them of their error?”

He laughed. “I have never seen them uncertain of anything. No, they would not—they do not—” He paused for a long moment, then fell to his knees in the dirt and refuse, flinging his sword behind him. He drew a long breath. “Matos. Dawna. You have not sinned against me. I have sinned against you. I have—I have thought of you as Evil upon the world, both my dearest friend and my wife.” He began to sob.

Chell stepped forward, sword sheathed, as Dawna and I knelt on either side of the man we loved. “Matos, the Seven Guardians are both Made and Born,” said Chell, kneeling as well. “That is how it must be, for the Creator of all things has made this world for us both. There is a place for you among us, a chance to be part of something greater than ourselves.”

Matos laughed. “A legend that springs from nowhere? Or perhaps, from the dirty backside of a tavern?”

“Why not?” I said. “This is the world we live in: one where, as you say, legends spring from nowhere. Yes, some Makers create monsters to terrify the world, or Make obscene amounts of wealth for themselves. But most of us simply Make what is needed to help our friends or neighbors.”

“So I would become the second of the Seven Guardians. An honorable career, although not a path to riches.”

Dawna laughed. “And when have riches been our great desire?”

Matos gave his wife a happy smile; we stood together once again. “You speak wisely, as always. My beloved.” They laughed together, then embraced. “So we are two of the Seven Guardians, Chell and I. What of the other five?”

“Oh, they will be known as they are needed,” I laughed. “Two more of the Made will join you when they are ready. The others will be of the Born.”

Matos looked past me, perhaps toward a makeshift temple where he had spent entirely too much time lately. He took up his sword and sheathed it. “Yes, my friends, I renounce the Cult. The lies they have told me condemn them. And there will be a reckoning.” He gave us a smile, grim at first, but then turned genuine. “Our new life begins tomorrow. But tonight, let us four find another tavern, one where I have not made a fool of myself, and drink toasts to love and friendship.”

“A toast always worth drinking!” Chell laughed. We made our way around the side of the tavern and away.

THE END

Tuesday, April 14, 2015 1 comment

He did WHAT?

Dubbayou tee EFFFFF?
Reality is truly stranger than fiction… especially on Planet Georgia.

Just go read this. Seriously.

Now the question is, did the deal go down as he says, or was that just a cover story?

Monday, April 13, 2015 3 comments

Blink: Superhero Summer Camp, episode 17

Blink’s earlier adventures:

Blink
Blink’s First Adventure | 2 | 3 | 4

Superhero Summer Camp (this one): 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16



“Okay, ten seconds. Rudy, be ready to run some of that aerial footage from earlier.” Montana paused, then held up five fingers, counting down each second. “Thank you, Gunnar. Twenty-two ABAs were deployed against Zero Point this evening. No known group outside the military has that many, and there are strict regulations about private ownership. Fortunately, Skyscraper City’s oldest and youngest superheroes were here to defend Zero Point, with some surprising help. Professor Zero, what can you tell us about the attack tonight?”

Professor Zero clasped his hands on the table and faced the camera. “Not much, Montana. I’ve been in touch with our regular security crew, who faced the threat with bravery and skill, by the way. The identification plates they’ve found so far had serial numbers cut away and removed, so there’s no telling who purchased them. Some of the electronics are intact, so we’ll be analyzing them to see if there’s any custom software that might lead us to a culprit. I have to point out, several of the ABAs were crippled, but still otherwise active. It’s making things hazardous for Security as they attempt to repair some of our breached defenses tonight.”

“Thank you, Professor. Captain Heroic, what can you say about tonight’s work?”

“It was a rough night, Montana. We had a couple of close calls. But Blink should tell you about it. He did most of the work.”

“For those of you watching tonight, this is Blink’s first appearance at a news conference. Skyscraper City’s youngest superhero burst onto the scene a few short months ago, helping to thwart a robbery at Grimes Financial. After rescuing a student from a street gang a week later, he has not been seen since. So Blink, you and Captain Heroic saved the day?”

Blink shook his head. “It wasn’t just us, Montana,” he said, his long practice sessions finally paying off. “Nixi here, and Professor Zero, guided us all evening. We’d have been stumbling in the dark if it wasn’t for them.” Next to him, Nixi snorted and Professor Zero gave him a smile. “And we weren’t alone. Warmonger wanted to prove that machines are no match for soldiers, so he switched sides for the evening. He grabbed a hammer and tuned up on like four or five of those battle-bots.”

“Really? How interesting!” Montana did look interested. “But what was your role?”

“Oh. I’d pop—teleport—behind a bot, plant a limpet mine on it, and pop away before it had a chance to shoot. Captain Heroic helped a lot. But then I got tired, and we ran out of mines, and we still had one of those things after us. Lucky for us, the Devis arrived just when we needed them.”

“So you took an active role in the battle?”

“Well, yeah. I had to. This was kind of an emergency.”

“And from what I’ve heard, you performed admirably.” Montana beamed.

“I’ve had a lot of training this summer, Montana. Captain Heroic has been like my mentor. One of the Masked Warriors, too. And Professor Zero, of course. It’s been like summer school, except a lot more fun. I wasn’t expecting to have to use all my training so soon, but at least I know it was… not all in vain, I guess.”

Captain Heroic laughed. “It’s been a pleasure to train him. And to work with him. We’ve agreed that he’ll be inactive now until he finishes school, but he’ll be a great addition to the team when the time comes.”

“I agree, he did pretty well out there,” said Nixi, surprising them all. “He went out and did the job like he’s been doing it all his life. A real professional. It was good to have him on this mission, and to be a part of it myself. Maybe we’ll partner up again some time in the future.”

“I’m just relieved that we got through the night with no serious injuries,” said Professor Zero. “We’ll find out who launched this attack, and we’ll respond. But tonight, we celebrate our success.”

“And you four—and others—have certainly earned it,” said Montana. “We’ll be looking forward to covering Blink in the future, and we’ll have more on this story on Fourteen at Seven, tomorrow morning. But for now, I’m Montana Rack, Channel Fourteen on the Scene. Rudy?” She waited a moment, then took out her earpiece. “That’s a wrap,” she said. “Great job, guys. Cap, can I talk to you in private for a few?”

“Sure.” Captain Heroic stood, and winced at his ankle. “Gonna need a walker if I keep this up much longer,” he grinned. “I’m supposed to be retired.”

“Are you not going to interview the Devis?” Blink asked.

“They don’t do interviews like this,” Montana explained. “Their usual spokesperson is dealing with the issues in town, but we’ll tackle that in the morning show. I suspect there’s a connection to what happened out here tonight. Go get some rest, Blink. You deserve it.” She helped Captain Heroic limp out of the room.

“If Sarika lets you rest.” Nixi gave him an evil grin. “I figure after what I just said, she won’t let you out of her sight for a while.”

“Good work, Blink,” said Professor Zero. “You handled yourself pretty well. Outside, and just now.”

“Thanks.”

“Take Montana’s advice. Get some rest. You’ll be back to classes tomorrow.” He gave Blink a lopsided smile. “I might try to arrange for you and Sarika to have some free time together. Supervised, of course. If you’d like.”

“Uh… sure.”

“Don’t forget to write up the evening in your journal. Everything. Nixi told me her part, by the way, so you need not spare that. And we’ll work on your weaknesses for the next couple of weeks as well. Goodnight, Blink.”

Blink shucked the hoodie and tossed it back to Montana’s intern. “Thanks for letting me use it,” he told her.

“No problem. Sounds like you had a long day.” Sam lowered her voice to a whisper. “Maybe by the time you’re on the job, I’ll be the one in front of the camera. Then it’ll be me interviewing you.” She winked and went back to packing up all the gadgets that are part of a remote TV gig.

Blink shrugged and walked out—and as Nixi had warned him, Sarika was right there. “I think she likes you,” she said without preamble. “But I saw you first. Mom said that when we’re back at home, she can pick you up and we can go to the mall. Maybe see a movie or something.” She grinned, a smile that lit up Blink’s world.

Maybe a hero did get the girls after all. He’d have to figure out how to tell his mom about her, and listen to the embarrassing gush, but that would be okay. “That sounds great,” he told Sarika.

Friday, April 10, 2015 4 comments

Of Made and Born, pt 1 of 2 (#FridayFlash)

I have a two-parter this week. It’s a Termag story, from the distant past before the Makers departed for the City of Refuge. The line "damn it, you fool, I’m her father!” came from a dream I had. I built the rest of the story from there…



Image source: openclipart.org
Dawna found me behind the tavern, watering the midden. “What cheer?” I asked her over my shoulder.

“No cheer, Zand. I’m frightened,” she admitted, as I finished and faced her. “You heard Matos in there. He has fallen in with that—that cult. If he finds out, I don’t know what he’ll do!” She began to cry, then stepped forward, falling onto my chest.

I did the only thing I could: held her and tried to comfort her. “I’ve known Matos forever,” I said, trying to reassure her. “He’s a good man, even if he’s confused—”

“Exactly what are you doing out here with my wife, Zand?”

Dawna spun out of my light embrace, her surprise easily mistaken for guilt. Matos looked puzzled, hurt, and a little angry—the normal things anyone might feel upon seeing one’s wife and best friend embracing in the dark. He put a hand to his sword.

“Matos—” I looked at my oldest and dearest friend. It was time—no, long past time—to drop the pretense. “Damn it, you fool, I’m her father!”

“Father?” he repeated, as Dawna looked back and forth between us. She realized what I was about to reveal, and I saw how that frightened her even more than the Cult of the Born.

“No!” she pleaded, then turned to her husband. “Matos, don’t listen to him, believe of us what you will!” Loyalty was her great virtue. I had seen to that.

“You can’t be her father,” Matos scowled, ignoring her plea. “We’re all of an age. What kind of fool do you take me for?”

“The kind of fool who is a good man, but has been blinded by fear, half-truths, and outright lies,” I said, looking him in the eye.

“Zand, no!” Dawna turned back to me.

I crossed my arms, more to reassure Matos than out of exasperation. “Dawna, he’s been my best friend for years. I’ve trusted Matos with my life. I should have never kept this from him.”

Before Dawna could answer, Matos laid a hand—a gentle hand—on her shoulder. “That an embrace between you two is innocent, I can believe. Even a brief indiscretion, I could forgive. But Zand, don’t try to justify what I saw with outrageous claims. That only makes me suspect you both.”

“Six years ago, Matos,” I said. “What happened?”

“You mean when Audra ran off with the butcher’s son, not a week before we were to be wed?” Matos looked down; perhaps the memory of that betrayal was already twisting his guts. He gave me a thin smile. “You took me out of harm’s way and got me roaring drunk. But what has that to do with this?”

“Walk that old path again with me, friend. What did you tell me when the spirits loosened your tongue?”

He shrugged. “That… that I had been unsure of her for a while. That I’d been turned by her physical charms, but she showed herself neither intelligent nor honest. Nor loyal, in the end.”

“And you said you would marry a woman with the head of a donkey if she were only clever, honest, and loyal.” We both laughed at the memory. “And a month later, I introduced you to Dawna.”

“Indeed.” Matos relaxed a moment, and smiled. His hand slipped off Dawna’s shoulder to her waist. “I’ve said ever since that I am forever in your debt for that. It was like she was made for me.”

“Matos… she was. I Made her for you. Not with a donkey’s head, mind you, but I thought you would forgive me for omitting that detail.”

As usual, my attempt at a jest fell wide of the mark. “What? Are you saying you’re a Maker?” He pushed Dawna away and drew his sword. “Tell me that’s a lie, Zand. Tell me!”

“It’s not a lie, Matos!” Dawna threw herself between us. “I am Made. Zand is my father. He Made me to be your wife! And I swear, if you strike at him, I will leave you!”

I took advantage of the distraction to Make a champion. He strode forth, skirting the midden, facing Matos with sword drawn. “Put away your weapon, O Born, and there will be no bloodshed this night.” Not the first words I would have preferred one of my Made to utter, but necessity ruled the moment.

“See? This is the evil of the Makers!” Matos spat. “They Make not men, but empty shells!”

“That is the half-truth you were taught,” I said. “All the Born are created in the image of the Creator, with the power of creation. You know the rhyme:

Ruler or knave,
The Creator has gave
A part of Himself to us all.

Woman or man,
All of us can
On the power of creation call.

Some create stories,
Some create songs,
Some create sculpture or art.

Others are given
The power of living—
Creation that comes from the heart.

Look at your wife, my friend. Is she an empty shell? Speak true!”

Monday, April 06, 2015 4 comments

Blink: Superhero Summer Camp, episode 16

Blink’s earlier adventures:

Blink
Blink’s First Adventure | 2 | 3 | 4

Superhero Summer Camp (this one): 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15



The hallway outside the press room was crowded. One figure detached herself from the crowd and ran to them—to Blink, to his surprise and Nixi’s.

“Blink!” Sarika gasped, taking his free hand in both of hers. “I was worried about you!” She hugged him. He felt Nixi’s smirk behind him.

“I—I’m fine,” he stammered, putting his free arm around her. “I ran out of steam, and Captain Heroic twisted his ankle. I guess I have limits after all.” So much for popping to the beach, he thought.

“But you won. That’s the important thing.” She turned, and waved to an approaching Devi. “Mama! Over here!” Blink stared, and Captain Heroic chuckled, as the woman who had saved them joined Sarika. “This is Blink,” Sarika told her.

“Uh, nice to meet you again,” said Blink. “Thanks for saving us out there.”

“My pleasure,” the Devi said, giving Blink an appraising look. “Have you spent much time with Sarika?”

“Uh, no!” Blink protested. “I’ve hardly seen her outside training!”

“Truly? She has talked so much about you. I thought perhaps you and she were working together.”

Sarika ducked and grinned next to her mother. “I told you we weren’t!” she said. She led her mother away, saying something about meeting at the mall.

“Looks like you’re in,” Nixi said dryly. “Daughter of a goddess? I’m guessing she’s gonna be kinda high-maintenance.”

Blink blushed, and Captain Heroic laughed, as Zero smirked. “Well,” said Zero, “let’s go on in. We don’t want to leave Channel Fourteen with dead air.”


“Good timing,” Montana Rack told the four of them as they entered the press room, Blink and Zero helping Captain Heroic. “We’re going live at ten. Top story! Oh…” Her composure flickered away for a brief moment. “What happened, Cap?”

“I tripped in the dark,” said Captain Heroic. “Hosed my ankle. I’ll limp around for a while, but I’ll be all right.”

“We can work with that,” Montana replied. “Kyle, Frank, let’s shoot them at the conference table. Put the wall behind them.” She ushered them to the seats, as the camera operators hustled to re-adjust. “Zero on the left, Cap on the right, and we’ll put the kids in the middle. Move these extra seats out of the way. Kyle, you stay wide. I’ll stand off to the side, and you frame all of us. Phil, you go close-up on the interviewees. Rudy can tell you which one he wants.”

She put a finger to her ear. “Okay, we’ve got two minutes. No time for makeup, we’ll have to go with what we got. Sam, can you bring some water for them?” The intern hustled over, with four bottles of water, passing them around. Blink and Captain Heroic, who had come straight over from the staging area, gulped down the water; Zero and Nixi drank deeply as well. “Blink, where’s your hoodie?”

“We had to use it for a decoy,” Blink replied, then turned pale. “Oh crap… if Mom sees my face…”

“You can use mine,” said Sam, shucking her black hoodie and tossing it to him. “I’ll need it back, though.”

“No problem.” Blink pulled the hoodie on, keeping the hood over his face. “Now you see me…”

“Definite improvement,” Nixi whispered, giving him a friendly nudge.

Before Blink could respond, Montana slapped her hip and picked up her mike. “Okay, show time!” She turned to face Kyle’s camera, pausing, listening to the audio in her earpiece before continuing. “This is Montana Rack, Channel Fourteen on the Scene, at Zero Point. Our top story tonight is breaking news: this evening, an unknown entity launched an attack on Zero Point, using Autonomous Battlefield Androids, or ABAs. We now go to Channel Fourteen’s expert on military hardware, Gunnar Schutte, for an overview of these devastating war machines. Gunnar?” She paused, then turned to face the interviewees. “Okay, we can relax. We pre-arranged this part. Gunnar will be about a minute, then it’ll be your turn. If you need to adjust your clothes or your seating, now’s the time to do it. Thanks for doing this on such short notice, by the way.”

“No problem, Montana.” Captain Heroic gave her a fond look. “We’ve run Blink through the whole wringer this summer. So far, he’s handled it pretty well.”

“I’ll do better than you, I bet,” Blink whispered to Nixi.

“You just watch,” she replied, giving him an evil smirk.

“Behave, you two,” Professor Zero muttered. “This is important.”

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