The Praetorian Imperative

I have for some time considered writing a series involving a wide-scale fleet action, and I’m pleased to report I got a start on it this week. Naturally this will not proscribe continued work on Starships at War. I have at least two more books on deck for that series.

First Praetorian is the historical conflict Skywatch faced in the early era of the Core Alliance. It was my universe’s “Jutland in space.” In this new series, called Destroy All Starships, the defeated Praetor’s shattered belligerents gave way to several smaller collectives of like-minded citizens, one of which is the Victorian Confederacy, situated in three small star systems just beyond the Magellan Frontier. The story in this series will recount the first “aftershock” of the Praetorian war.

The adversaries in the new books will be an aggressively unified front consisting of two already-introduced races, the Sarn Star Empire and the Yersian Unity, along with two new races, the Kraken Decarchy and an as-yet unnamed faction which will be found with Ithis weapons and technology at a crucial point. All of the enemy races will be armed with unique weapons, both ship-mounted and individual, and will have tactics to match.

Our heroes will be joined by the Proximan Kingdom, a feline race with a strong affinity for the code of chivalry and certain medieval sensibilities updated to reflect their advanced exploration and scientific capabilities. All Proximan soldiers are trained with the sword, and I think you will all approve of the direction I’m taking that most ancient of weapons. I’ll give you a hint: their swords don’t glow.

Many characters from Starships at War will return, and will find themselves fighting alongside some new allies, including several new starships, more than a few new ship types, some new technology and weapons, and a fair number of unexpected encounters in deep space. There will be a lot of exploration and discovery in these books, which will make the story just a bit more like “where no man has gone before” while packing in more of the non-stop action you have all come to expect. I’m told action and dialogue are my strong suits, so that’s where I plan to invest most of my focus.

The artificially intelligent gunships I introduced in Fleet Commander Recon have evolved considerably and will be paired with properly trained crews to perform some highly entertaining feats of legerdemain. We’re also going to do some large-scale surface engagements, so the Skywatch Marines will get some time in the spotlight too.

The Praetorian Imperative will be going on pre-order shortly. If you are on my mailing list, you’ll get advance notice and a discounted price. I’ll throw a couple sneak peek chapters up in the Library-Tron too.

I’m planning at minimum a trilogy, so expect an announcement on book two relatively quickly afterwards.

Goodbye Gravatar

Memorandum to the WordPress developers:

I have a 60 second time limit on retarded in my company. I do this because I do not have time to debug someone else’s broken, buggy software. When I want to change my profile picture, and it takes four attempts (after three successful uploads and the WordPress.com site telling me the profile picture was successfully updated) only to discover my “gravatar” wasn’t changed, I take corrective measures.

Since I have 40 years of experience programming computers, those corrective measures consist of me reaching deep into the source code for WordPress and aggressively ripping all the gravatar code out down to the last byte.

Consider this notice the gravatar “feature” has been permanently disabled on this web site with extreme prejudice.

The new editor was yanked out too. When I write, I really don’t need a “user experience.” I don’t want a 20-something to ride up on a scooter, straighten his horn-rimmed hipster glasses and start gesturing at Powerpoint. I just want to write the post. Perhaps soon I’ll write an article about why hammers have handles and why there aren’t a thousand buzzword-hooting idiots chasing VC dollars promising to upgrade handles for a better user experience.

Black out.

Site of the Day

Long ago, when the Internet was very different from what it is today, there were more than a few destinations that had lists they called “The Site of the Day.” This was how we discovered things like the live coffee maker camera and Zombo.com before social media and search engines.

As you may have guessed, social media and search engines have done away with most of the fun on the web (along with pretty much everything else), so sites like mine are taking up the slack with our blogrolls. Enjoy my new Site of the Day list alongside links to my other web projects.

Those of us who know what the Internet used to be are not thrilled with what the Internet has become. The main reason I have a blogroll and a “Site of the Day” list is because we need to return to a time when sites just linked to each other.

If you have a site and would like to exchange links, drop me a line!

Ranko Whelan and Cici Ryan Encounter a Mystery

Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors will be a standalone story much like Secret of the Witchwand and No Savage Under This Moon. The warriors explore a mysterious abandoned keep near the Gunsuan Tower Grounds where the first beacon was found during the events in Dawnsong: the Last Skyblade.

I’m publishing Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors as a free webcomic.

Headed Back to Comics

As part of the 20th Anniversary celebration of LadyStar, my next book will be a digital comic. I’ve been developing models for the LadyStar characters for some time now, and I think my technology (such as it is) has caught up to the capabilities we had when I did my first webcomic back in 2008. I’ll be performing a couple of simultaneous experiments as part of the project.

First, I have a Patreon, where I’ll have previews and extras for readers. I’ll be publishing the books on my bookstore and on Kindle. The books will be titled Fury of the Venom Legion and will depict a confrontation between the Ajan Warriors and the minions of Bane Cryptic Sai Magnen. Each book will be 60-80 pages and will release in sequence.

Secondly, I will be publishing a free parallel story in weekly chapters on Webtoons titled Jessica Halloran and the Ajan Warriors. The parallel story will serve as a prequel to the events in Venom Legion and will be released in weekly chapters.

I produce a fair amount of art that doesn’t find its way into the comics during production, so I will be posting some promotional works on Instagram.

The purpose here is two-fold. One, I am fully committed to promoting Enchanted Airship and middle grade fiction in general. Also the LadyStar characters have always gravitated towards books, comics and games, which means once we have a new comic we’ll be 2/3rds of the way to fulfilling the trifecta.

If I’m successful, I will rebuild LadyStar.net to its original vision and launch our first new game book sometime in early 2019. All the new books will take full advantage of the version 12 Jericho engine and the premium EPUB3 format I spent most of the summer converting my bibliography to.  I think the comics and fiction will promote each other quite effectively.

If you’d like updates on my progress, be sure to join my mailing list. Black out.

What Do You Want for your Kids?

I’ve met a lot of people from many different cultures around the world and one thing I know for certain they all had in common was they wanted the best for their kids. I’ve wondered on occasion what parents would say if they were asked “if you could make a list of the top three things you would want your kids to be doing when they aren’t in school or asleep, what would they be?”

My priorities might be a little different than others but I think most parents would agree they would want one of those three things to be reading. There is no doubt that reading improves educational performance among all ages and all achievement levels. The best part is it doesn’t matter what your child is reading. It could be a comic book, a history book or a story about pirates. The more children read, the better they get at learning.

Books have a unique magic that other media cannot duplicate. They inspire something called the “fictive dream,” where a reader and an author work together to create a story that takes place entirely in the mind. Active minds create opportunities to learn, whether it is facts on the page, new words a young reader has never encountered before or just dreaming about what a faraway place or time might have really been like. There is no activity a child can engage in that can be potentially more rewarding.

My other two priorities would be going outside to play and explore and either playing or practicing music or a musical instrument. I have to admit those two are my based on my own experiences as I was heavily involved in both sports and music growing up and in school.

Because I know how rare educational opportunities can be for some families, I make it a priority to include “learning moments” in my LadyStar™ and Ironjammers™ stories. I introduce real-world concepts like why iron creates sparks in this excerpt from Dawnsong The Last Skyblade:

“We should keep one candle lit all the time, huh?” Jessica said.

“Especially at night, otherwise we won’t be able to see at all. This place is going to be pitch black after dark,” Shannon added.

“How come it makes sparks like that when you hit those rocks together?” Cici asked, playing with the little pieces of flint.

“It’s ’cause of iron!” Jessica exclaimed. “I remember when me and Talitha were in the Dandelion Guides and went on the nature tour! We learned how to make campfires and torches and lots of stuff. If you take something real hard and hit it against a piece of iron, it makes sparks fly because iron burns in the air!”

Talitha nodded, confirming Jessica’s explanation.

Just enough to introduce the idea. Kids who read this might be inspired to go look up the rest of the story. There are numerous moments like that in each book. I plan ahead to make sure I have plenty of opportunities for learning moments. It makes my LadyStar and Ironjammers novels more than just novels. I want them to be inspirational and encourage readers.

I’d like to encourage you to consider a LadyStar story for your next book purchase. I think you’ll agree they help make learning fun and will make your son or daughter want to read more.

If you’d like to see some sample chapters from Dawnsong The Last Skyblade, you can read them in the Library-Tron.

Reading more is always a good thing.

The Astonishing Failure of the Windows Operating System

I am frequently asked to explain why I am so virulently opposed to Windows. Full disclosure: I’ve been using Windows personally and professionally for more than 30 years, so I have a few unpleasant experiences upon which to base my opinions.

Windows is without doubt the most incompetent commercial product ever invented by man. One of the key reasons many people take up Linux and/or switch to Mac OS is because they are so fed up with Windows and its comprehensive failure to function properly that they are willing to abandon all their familiar applications, risk losing all their data, forsake all their games and spend weeks, months and possibly years of their lives learning a different operating system. Millions of them are also willing to spend thousands of dollars on new hardware. At no other time in human history has a commercial product ever caused people to act this way, mainly because at no other time in history has a commercial product ever actively worked against its customers the way Windows does.

I have a three-decade career in IT. I’ve worked as a software engineer for companies larger than Microsoft. Nevertheless, whenever I boot Windows I am still beset with incidents like the one I experienced this morning, where it took me no less than forty minutes to attempt to change the default application for opening text files to Emacs on Windows 10. After nearly an hour of fighting, I gave up and resigned myself to the fact that I cannot open my files with the application of my choice.

This, of course, leaves aside the fact it takes up to nine minutes for Windows to boot to a usable state. I define “usable state” as one where I can open an application and use it. Windows also perpetually displays the wrong time, even after it is corrected again and again.

I have a fairly recent version of Linux Mint that boots in 20 seconds on the same hardware. Linux also manages to display the correct time of day somehow.

These are my text files, on my computer, in my home directory no less, yet Microsoft decides. This isn’t accidental, boys and girls. Microsoft making decisions for you is how they force you to use your property as they see fit.

It goes without saying that I can open text files in Linux with whatever application I choose. The reason this is true is because there is no financial incentive for Linux developers to interfere in my day to day work.

For those of you gearing up to send me comments like “works fine for me,” note that my problem is not unique. Also note the multiple suggested workarounds in that Stack Exchange thread and the fact each one failed to solve the problem. For my part, I manually edited the registry entries and Windows ignored them. If you do have a solution and everything works fine for you, please post your instructions in that thread so everyone can benefit.

Apparently there is some crucial corporate objective for Microsoft in making absolutely certain Notepad is the default application for opening text files. Oh, and by the way, it should be pointed out Ronald Reagan had just been sworn in for his second term when Notepad was new. Microsoft finally got around to updating it a few months ago after forcing the world to endure cheap failed software for more than 30 years. What if we had all those wasted man-hours back? What dollar value could we put on that?

What if Kenmore or Whirlpool had shipped a refrigerator that randomly reached temperatures of 150 degrees for an hour or so a couple times a month?

So for those of you wondering, that’s why serious people use something other than Windows when it comes time to do serious work. Those who do not are just better at tolerating failure, wasted money and wasted time.

LadyStar for Warrior Moms and Warrior Dads Chapter Three: A Good Person

Remember when I was asked to describe LadyStar in only a few words? It’s much easier to describe my main character than it is to cover the whole story, because Jessica Halloran is easy to recognize. I wrote her to be a “human ray of sunshine.”

I have been frequently distressed at how mean many fictional characters have become over the years. When I was growing up, I had Looney Tunes and Mister Rogers to look forward to on television. While those cartoons sometimes got a little rambunctious, there was never any bitterness or gloom in them. Fred Rogers remains one of the greatest role models in the entire history of television. Not once did Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ever have a negative message for viewers.

The LadyStar story has a positive moral core because of Jessica. She is relentlessly optimistic and positive. Her friends call her a “goofball.” All of the girls do their fair share of teasing each other, but when push comes to shove, Jessica is almost always the reason the LadyStar characters prevail in the face of peril. She’s their heart. But there is more to it than Jessica’s happy personality.

In the story, Jessica wields a magical sword called Dawnsong. It is a weapon of nearly limitless power. Initially, it is disguised as a golden ring. Over the course of the first book, Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade, the characters discover that both the ring and the sword respond to honor, valor and selfless acts of kindness and goodness. When Jessica helps others, heals her enemies, tells the truth and avoids subterfuge and treacherous behavior, she becomes more powerful. She is literally a source of light in the story, since several of her magical abilities cause her to give off a soothing golden glow. One of the key symbolic images in LadyStar is the fact Jessica is never in the dark.

This isn’t to say Jessica doesn’t run into obstacles. The necessity of her moral foundation leads her into more than a few dilemmas through her adventures. The other characters’ powers aren’t bound by the same kinds of restrictions on their behavior, so they sometimes push the boundaries and force Jessica to continually examine and sometimes adjust her approach. In the process, the other characters learn that sometimes the ends don’t justify the means and vice versa.

The moral journey the LadyStar characters take is just as important as the choices they make. I believe this is the essence of any coming of age story. Jessica can bless and strengthen her friends, not only making them stronger but amplifying their powers as well. This ability not only reinforces her role as the positive and encouraging member of the group, but it also underlines how important teamwork is.

When Jessica and any of her teammates work together, they get more powerful. When Jessica and the whole group work together, they can accomplish the impossible, and frequently do just that. Jessica doesn’t lie. She never uses violence unless necessary. She prefers to defend instead of attack. She eschews subterfuge, disguise, poisons and deception. She almost always announces herself and challenges her enemies face to face. She is charitable. She gives away most of the wealth she is given. She shows mercy and gives quarter, sometimes to a fault. These values sometimes put her at odds with her friends, but for Jessica, doing the right thing always prevails.

Now, what if they were all heroes?

Strike Battleship Argent Chapter Three

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my Starships at War military science fiction series Strike Battleship Argent

The newest crop of hotshot officers readily agreed there was something almost magical about the way modern warships were constructed. Jason Hunter had fallen deeply in love with the third-generation ships of the line the first time he had seen the design, and the Argent was most assuredly the “prettiest girl at the prom” when it came to the Captain’s Corps and their bragging rights.

Hunter was a self-admitted romantic. He often opined there was no more glorious creature in all creation than a “maiden resplendent in all her finery.” This was usually interpreted by colleagues and rivals alike as a fanciful metaphor for the unblemished Citadel-class hull Seven-Four-Zero.

Command One approached the enormous weapons platform from her port quarter. He tapped the transponder indicator with a gloved finger in the academy-approved manner to make absolutely sure his shuttle was transmitting multi-frequency encrypted “friendly” signals on all of Argent’s pickups. He knew what his baby was capable of if she detected an unauthorized scanner contact inside her command zone, and he knew well the only thing worse than being vaporized by your own ship’s point defense was knowing that your ship had opened fire on eighteen cases of 30-year-old scotch.

Green and white running lights glimmered. A ship of the line was a vessel engineer’s expression of sheer power. The shape was meant to convey an intimidating potential for destruction. Her formidable engines, mighty main batteries and lithe energy weapon emplacements were breathtaking even for someone not acquainted with the design genius. The soaring main hull gave the enormous vessel a majestic profile. Her sweeping triple flight decks were as innovative as they were formidable. Hunter’s ship could launch and recover squadron after lethal squadron of smaller ships ranging from deep space fighters to surface mechs.

Argent was brand-new. There were some inboard spaces where crew recruits swore they could still smell new paint. Some of the officers had to admit they had never seen so much expensive hardware in such pristine condition all in the same place before. Hunter had made a point of “walking the decks” and visiting every compartment, berth and space within hours of receiving orders to take command. He knew a 23-year-old Skipper already had his share of challenges to overcome. Breaking tradition would be nothing more than tempting luck, and all Captains, young or old, knew one thing about Skywatch duty: Luck was at least as important as everything else put together.

Hunter had his enemies. At least three flag officers directly opposed his rapid promotions, but when faced with the realities in his jacket, that gleaming Skyshield Legion decoration on his uniform, and his short, fiery billet as Flight Leader of “Yellowjacket Nine,” where he became the first Ace fighter pilot under the age of 20 in fleet history, even the most shrill objections were inevitably quieted.

What he had was the respect of the men and women he had fought with. There were some things even Skywatch Academy couldn’t teach, and there were some collars where a Captain’s insignia belonged, age be damned. There were also some ships that needed a crew up to the task of following a Captain like Jason Hunter into battle. The officers that recommended his promotions had high expectations, and Hunter knew that no matter how accomplished his crew became, he needed even better officers.

Re-assembling those officers was the Captain’s current mission.

After expertly landing Command One on starboard flight deck three, Hunter powered down and disengaged his shuttle’s controls. The atmosphere normalized and the environmental computers balanced pressure between the shuttle interior and the crowded, magnetically sealed seven-acre flight deck before the airlock indicators switched to green. Hunter’s commlink went live and the familiar voice of the ranking crew chief sounded from the omnidirectional crystal speaker in the Captain’s uniform collar.

“What have ya got, Skipper?”

“I’ve got the hard stuff, Chief,” Hunter punched the hatch interlock and opened the shuttle’s side door. Duncan Buckmaster was always a welcome sight. He was at least twice Hunter’s age, with the service stripes to prove it. Within an hour of learning the Captain had requested his assignment to one of the most prestigious commands in the entire line, he had become Hunter’s staunchest ally. The speed with which he shaped up the Argent’s flight crews was the stuff of legend. He was three weeks from mandatory promotion to Master Crew Chief: The highest non-commissioned Skywatch rank.

“Good to have a non-trainee command officer back aboard, sir,” Duncan said as he activated the shuttle’s disembark ladder. “Everyone’s been nervous as a new bride’s first Thanksgiving around here with the junior division in charge, and I’m starting to feel like a dad left home with all the kids.”

“Chief, I can only promise you this: When I finally round up my truant officers, you just might long for the days of the junior division. I’ve got some of the fleet’s biggest delinquents waiting for us on Jupiter Five, and we’re going to blow the roof off of Scary’s.” Hunter slapped Buckmaster’s shoulder. “Why don’t you take the hop down with us? We’ll set you up with a steak and a stein and tell some story!”

“I appreciate that, sir, but you told me before we left Oil Can City you wanted Paladins, T-Hawks and Wildcats ready for action in two weeks. Well, today is day ten. I’ll take that steak if you’ll take two out of three.”

“Point conceded, Chief. Let’s call it a rain check.” Hunter turned and pointed as he made his way to the magneto-lifts. “I owe you one. If I don’t deliver in a week, you have an open invitation to the Captain’s table for dinner!”

“Much obliged, sir. Where do you want all this hooch?”

“Just put it somewhere customs can’t find it in case we get waylaid!”

Hunter synchronized his personal chronometer with shipboard time and jogged to the flight level lifts. This was one party he couldn’t be late for.

Dawnsong Chapter Seven

The following is a free chapter from the first book in my LadyStar™ fantasy adventure series Dawnsong: The Last Skyblade


“I’ve got light green, dark green, three kinds of green that ain’t even green…”
– Ranko Whelan


Secret Tunnel Entrance
South Barrotog Claim
Three miles northwest of Berrypatch Grove

“I’m not going down there! There’s no telling what might be in that tunnel!”

“Ranko, it’s five feet away!” Shannon replied. “Just get one of those coins. You’re faster than us.”

“If it’s so safe, why don’t you go?” Ranko asked.

“Because that tunnel is made for short people like you,” Shannon replied, putting her hands on her hips.

“Alright, that’s enough,” Alanna said. “Cici, go get one of those little coins and bring it right back. And don’t go any further into the tunnel.”

Cici lit up like a light bulb factory at being chosen for something important by Alanna. She scrambled down the waterlogged wooden stairs to the muddy base of the tunnel. The girls had gathered on the east edge of the barley field, under a line of thin willow trees. Talitha had already remarked on the fact the tunnel had to be artificially made, since it was square in shape, with clearly defined corners and edges. It also had a wooden trap door almost covering the entrance, which at least partially explained why it wasn’t completely full of water from the rainstorm.

“Hurry up, Little Bit!” Ranko urged. Cici knelt and picked a handful of the smaller coins out of the mud and even snagged the big one before she clambered back up the stairs. She dumped them in the grass and all the girls gathered around to look.

“They look heavy,” Jessica said, picking one up and turning it over. “Ooh looky! They have little crowns on them.”

“Is that the same language as the book?” Alanna asked, indicating the lettering on the largest coin. Talitha shook her head.

“These look like copper,” Jessica muttered.

“They make coins out of copper here?” Shannon asked.

“I guess,” Jessica replied. “We got one mama coin and eight little baby coins.”

“I told you we found treasure-land,” Ranko said. “There’s probably a lot more in the part of the tunnel we can’t see. We have to explore the rest of it!”

“I am not crawling around in that muddy tunnel!” Shannon said.

“Even if it means we can find more coins?” Jessica asked with a smile. “Come on! We can pretend we’re explorers and we’ll be rich after we find buried treasure!”

“You be an explorer. I’m going to stay right here where there’s no mud in my hair.”

“If there’s a lot of these little coins, we’re going to need something to carry them in. Little Bit, go back to the barn and get one of those bags you found,” Ranko said. “Hurry quick.”

Cici bolted. The older girls knew she would treat the request like she was competing for gold in the 4×100 relay, so it wouldn’t be long before she got back.

“You’re going in there?” Shannon asked in an incredulous tone.

“Yep. If there’s a monster in there that eats copper coins, I’d rather find out about it during the day,” Ranko replied.

“There’s a monster in there!?” Jessica’s voice became more than a little squeaky.

“Oh, my goodness,” Talitha whispered.

“If there is, it’s six against one. Well, five and a half,” Ranko replied as Cici ran up with two of the dingy cloth bags. Ranko took one and threaded it through the thin belt in her jeans.

“We’re going to regret this,” Shannon said as Ranko slipped down the wooden stairs and crouched.

“Leave the trap door open for light!” the red-haired girl said as she ventured into the tunnel.

Jessica looked around at the other girls. They were all watching the tunnel entrance expectantly. “I’m going with her,” she finally announced.

“What?” Shannon asked. “Are you crazy?”

“What if she needs help? I’m going.” Jessica gingerly navigated down the stairs and disappeared into the tunnel.

Ranko stopped when she noticed the passageway was getting brighter. She looked back and saw Jessica.

“Hi.”

“The boss wasn’t kidding when she said you were glowing, was she?”

Jessica shook her head and smiled.

“I guess we won’t need a torch then. Come on.”

“It smells like moldy pond water in here,” Jessica said. “Yucky.”

It wasn’t long before the tunnel opened up considerably. Ranko slid down a muddy ramp of sorts and found she could stand without having to hunch over. When Jessica arrived, the low-ceiling room was illuminated well enough to see an upright wooden door was installed in a stone wall at the opposite end of the chamber. In this part of the tunnel the floor looked completely dry.

“That’s a sconce.”

“What is?”

“That!” Jessica was pointing at a black metal frame of sorts attached to the wall next to the door. “You put torches in them so you can see.”

“Okay, Miss Smarty, riddle me this. Remember how the boss said the tunnel should have a bunch of water in it?”

Jessica nodded.

“The water would run down that passageway and in here. Where did it go? This room should be waist deep from all that rain yesterday!”

“Okay, but look at this!” Jessica hunched and made her way across to the opposite corner and crouched. “There’s a drain here, like the one at the place my dad gets our car fixed. Maybe the water did run down the tunnel and into here and then drained away.”

“I know Miss Shannon said no spooky talk, but this place is getting really weird.” Ranko’s voice lowered to a whisper. “This is all too perfect. Someone had to have built all this. Someone has to be living here!”

“Let’s open that door and find out!” Jessica whispered back.

“Nope. We take all this back to the boss. We need a plan, and we can do better than ‘the redhead and the goofball charge through the weird door in the monster cave.’”

“But where do you think the rest of the treasure went?”

“It’s probably all behind that door with the monsters. Let’s go.”

As they climbed back towards the wooden stairs, Jessica looked back to make sure Ranko was kidding about the monsters. The two girls finally emerged from the trap door. Ranko closed it and sat on top to make sure nothing escaped from the tunnel.

“There’s a door down there. It’s not just a muddy passageway, and Goofy saw a sconce where they might put a torch.”

“Great. Let’s put a big rock on the trap door and call it even,” Shannon said, folding her arms. “Sounds like we weren’t invited anyway.”

“Why would they dig a tunnel under a farm?” Cici asked.

“It’s the last place anyone would look,” Alanna muttered. Then she snapped her fingers. “A hideout! Enken did say this farm was abandoned. Maybe this is an underground hideout of some kind?”

“That makes sense. They must be storing all their stolen coins down there,” Ranko said.

“Yeah, but who is storing stolen coins?” Alanna added.

“These are stolen!?” Jessica exclaimed. “Then we gotta give ‘em back!”

“To who?” Shannon asked. “The chickens?”

“Whom,” Talitha said quietly.

“Whatever!”

“No, silly! Whoever the hideout people stole them from!” Jessica replied. “If I lost a bunch of baby copper coins and a big mama coin I’d want someone to bring them back to me. Wouldn’t you?”

“So what’s your plan, Doofus? A frontal assault or do we sneak in there by dark of night and try to pick the lock?” Ranko asked with a sarcastic look.

Jessica shrugged and made a sound like “idunno.”

“I say we get one of those big shovels and smash the door with it!” Cici announced.

“Okay, we’ll all go to lunch and you let us know how that works out,” Ranko replied.

“No! You’re supposed to go with me!” Cici said with a big smile. “I’m just a little kid!”

“Nah, I’d rather go out for pizza. You can be the too-short shovel guard,” Ranko said, reclining on the door and pretending to yawn and go to sleep. Cici ran over and punched her shoulder. Ranko playfully grabbed at the younger girl’s ankles as she danced out of reach.

“I have a better plan,” Alanna said with a confident smile.