Battlehymn, Part 7
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Battlehymn, Part 7 Part 15 - Diminuendo Cassie strolled to the balcony of the King’s Retreat, staring out at the ships entering and leaving Scythia. Here, high above the Imperial city, she watched the freedom of the ships setting out, and envied them. Ever since the funeral, since the first moment she’d heard that voice in her mind, she’d been turning the situation over and over. Power was for the strong, Jovielle would say. Power was for those that could take it. All others were meant to serve. And serve she would… Unless she did something about it, the voice that was and was not her said. She nodded to herself. Cassie came to her brother's grave - the simple plaque set in among a bed of flowers. This was the price of failure. This was the cost of weakness. This was what became of those who tried to change the game. Cassie considered the plaque for a moment, turning her own lips into a sneer for the sake of the cameras she knew were watching. Not that any mere commoner would review these, no. But since Arom had spoken out, and been caught, and imprisoned here - she knew she had to be under suspicion, hothouse flower or no. Of course, plotting continued. Pirate attacks in Prospero were up. That prompted an offer of assistance from Augustine. But Cassie was almost certain that it had been Homer’s idea. And it was probably Corwin who was using the underground syndicates to fund and supply the pirates. Mother Jovielle, in her way, encouraged it. Cassie shook her head. They had never been about togetherness, or comfort, or help. It was always about competition, the great game, and who could play it better. And who would win. She stared down at the plaque, considering the lessons to be learned. She remembered Arom’s words, murmuring them to herself. “If you play a game, play to win. But the only one who defines winning is you.” Cassie breathed in deeply, the smell of the flowers filling the air of the domed garden off the main space habitat's platform. The plaque, burnished bronze set amidst splashes of pink and white flowers, was a mockery. "In memory of Arom, beloved son and prince". Cassandra looked up, watching the ships again as they moved through the empty vacuum, coming and going with their cargoes and passengers. She longed to 2
Battlehymn, Part 7 be so free, free to wander the worlds wherever her heart led her. The sight of the ships coming and going filled her with such longing that she felt it difficult to breathe. She glanced at the timepiece standing on a pedestal in the center of the garden. Without looking away, she called for her lady-in-waiting. "Ailer." "Here, my lady," was the instant response. "Shall we step outside for a moment?" “As my lady wishes.” Cassandra was unique in her family. She enjoyed the feel of a space suit, loved the feeling of microgravity, reveled in the privacy of the vacuum of space. Here, in the heavens, she could let her guard down. Just her, and the stars, and Ailer, her one trusted companion. Ailer, who had been more than a friend to her brother, Arom. It was a regular part of her visits here to the Retreat. "Yes, mistress." Ailer tapped a few commands on her datapad. "This way, mistress." Ailer led Cassandra to stairs, which went down into the structure of the garden annex. Down a brightly lit corridor, they stopped before a red door marked "AIRLOCK". Cassandra breathed in - even down here, the air was full of the smell of the flowers. She allowed Ailer to help her with a spacesuit from the alcove just to the side. She fitted her wrists and ankles with impeller modules, and stepped into the lock itself. Ailer suited up as well. Cassandra smiled. Good. She'd have a chance to speak with her lady in waiting - just the two of them. “I know I do this every time I come up here, but it feels like it’s been forever since the last time, Ailer." “You enjoy this so much, mistress. I had thought perhaps I’d suggest it today.” That was a surprise. Ailer normally wasn’t a fan of spacewalking. Cassie smiled to herself. Maybe she was coming around. They checked each other's seals and telltales, and once they were satisfied that neither were in immediate danger of death from vacuum exposure, Cassie cycled the lock herself. The door opened to space, and the gravity slowly wound down, until Cassie found herself floating. This was something she truly loved. She almost went diving 3
Battlehymn, Part 7 out the door with a whoop. Almost. Instead, she stepped out into the void, pirouetting and turning, watching the universe circle around her. After two or three spins, she used her impellers to stop, and motioned to Ailer. "Come on out!" Ailer stepped out also, taking a tentative step into the void. She was competent at this, as she was at most everything. Cassie considered the airlock door for a moment. It would be so easy to kick off from the underside of the habitat, add a boost from the impellers, and find herself diving toward the atmosphere. She wondered how long it would take to burn up. Probably too long, she thought, shaking her head to cast the thought from her. She looked over to Ailer, and smiled. Besides, she reasoned. If she did that, she'd never be able to keep the promise she made to Arom to keep his lover safe. Arom, that bastard, had made her care, had made her promise, and then had gone and died for his ideals. It was the most honorable thing that any in the house of Akosh had done, Cassie thought. She reached back for Ailer. "Come on, Ailer. It's fine. Look!" She turned a somersault, using the impellers to start her spin, tucking into a neat ball, then killing her motion with nearly pinpoint accuracy. Ailer sailed out to meet her Princess, who put her fingers up to her mouth. "Shh." Princess Cassie pantomimed, then pressed her helmet against Ailer's. She yelled, without activating her comm unit. "You were close to my brother." Ailer's eyes widened. She nodded, and Cassie could see the fear in her eyes. "It's all right. He told me everything. I promised him I would take care of you.” Ailer’s eyes went wide and she looked around, no doubt thinking that a denial would result in a quick death. "Ailer, look at me." Cassie yelled. “You know me. I am not my mother. I am NOT my mother. And I WILL NOT BE HER." And the little voice inside her head said in a mocking tone “We’ll see…”. She felt the anger, the passion rising in her, and stamped it down with firm resolve. She may be her mother’s daughter, but she’d die before she surrendered completely to that inheritance. She felt the tension leaving Ailer's body. "Of course you knew," she said. “I… I miss him so much!” Cassie watched her blink away tears. She suddenly looked up, 4
Battlehymn, Part 7 her gaze fierce and serious. “I swore an oath to him also. An oath to protect you, keep you safe. Just in case.” Cassie railed against that, just a bit. Even her own brother considered her a pawn - a piece to be played in the great game? To be protected? Reserved? She pushed the thought away, for now. “He made me promise to stand by you no matter what. You’ve known me for years. Will you trust me?” Cassie nodded. “Of course, Ailer. You’re the only person I can trust.” Ailer nodded back and smiled. "Good." She glanced over Cassie’s shoulder. "Because it's time to go." Cassie turned to see what Ailer had been looking at, and she saw two black painted armors approaching them, completely powered down. Her mouth formed an O of surprise just before the first suit reached them. One reached around her waist, surprisingly gentle and slow. The second one grabbed Ailer, and tossed something towards the wire that connected the King’s Retreat to the planet surface. With a quick burst of their armor’s impellers, they headed toward the lanes of arriving ships, headed toward the planet’s spaceport. Wait, Cassandra thought to herself. What’s going on? That can't be right. We're going back down to the planet surface? She struggled against the grip of the suit that held her, but it was implacable, immovable, and remorseless. Cassandra steeled herself for what was to come. She wondered what death by starvation would be like. Or death by fiery re-entry. She closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable. A sudden flash behind her eyelids made her open her eyes. A glowing ball of fire had flashed into existence for a moment, and then was suffocated and died in the empty black, but not before it had done its terrible work. The cable tethering the King’s Retreat to Scythia - the entire bottom of the habitat - had been wrecked and shattered. The habitat itself was tumbling now, venting atmosphere in multiple places, the dome cracking from the stress of the explosion. The suits powered up, diving toward the descending ships. They passed by one so close Cassie could read the name painted on the prow - the "Platonic Desire", 5
Battlehymn, Part 7 apparently on final approach to the surface. Cassandra and Ailer found themselves tossed into an airlock on the spine, and the two armors sailed away toward the outgoing traffic. They hadn't even slowed to drop them off. Cassie was sure that she'd feel the bruises for a month. Once in the chamber, the lock cycled, and in a moment, Ailer was stripping her suit. "We don't have much time, milady." Cassandra’s head whirled, but she began removing her own suit. “Ailer… what… who…” Ailer grabbed her hand and squeezed. “It’s going to be all right. They’re friends, followers of Arom. He asked us to help when the time was right.” “Did that help include destroying the King’s Retreat? An armed attack?” Ailer nodded. “Yes. Yes it does. It’s all part of the plan.” “Plan? What plan?” Cassie shrieked. The inner door opened, and a smirking woman stood there with clothes. She tossed them in the lock. "No time for a proper dressing, my chicks. Take these and hurry." Cassandra stared at the dark-skinned woman for a moment, then took the plain brown jumpsuit and slipped it on, while Ailer took the blue. As Cassie pulled her long hair back into a tail, Ailer stepped forward. "Begging your pardon, milady, but the hair will have to go." Cassandra felt a sinking feeling, but nodded. Ailer took the hair in a tight grip, and took a pair of scissors proffered by the smirking woman. With a smooth motion, the hair was cut, and Cassandra stepped out of the airlock. Ailer dropped the hair, leaving the suits and their old clothes in the lock. Once the door was shut, the lock cycled once again, sucking the suits and Cassie's cut hair out into the void. A second later, the ship rocked under the first buffetings of the atmosphere. "Ah, just in time, my chicks," the woman said, turning to lead them down the corridor. "Soon we'll be on the ground, you ladies will have new idents, and then you're off to wherever the wind takes you."
Battlehymn, Part 7 Cassie’s heart skipped a beat. Free? Live outside the palace? She couldn't believe it. Surely it couldn't be that easy. "Keep your head down, milady, and perhaps a change of hair color? Contact lenses?" Ailer said. The dark-haired woman shook her head. "No, it'll muck up the ident. No changes like that until that's done." Ailer nodded. "Of course." "What do I call you? How can I trust… how can I thank you?" Cassie asked. The dark-skinned woman smirked. "I'm just a mother hen, little chick, gathering you under my wings. Never mind my name, or the name of my ship, which this is not. Never mind my face, which you should forget. And never mind anything... but thank the heavens for your brother, Arom, who spoke truth in dark times and paid the price for it." She and Ailer bowed their heads. A moment later, the dark-skinned woman spoke again. “If you've a mind, I can get you berths on a ship bound for Prospero, and from there..." the dark-haired woman made a dramatic pause "to Haven." Ailer broke into a wide grin. "Oh, thank you! Mother Hen, how... Thank you. Thank you." The woman nodded, and embraced Ailer. Cassie shook her head. This was moving fast, but the prospect of freedom was one she couldn’t ignore. “Haven? Isn't that full of gangs and pollution?" The woman glanced over at her. "You believe everything you see in the vids?" Cassie blushed. "You'll need a cover." "Armor drivers," Ailer responded immediately. Cassie's eyes went a little wide. "I thought you might say that." The dark haired woman responded. "I took the liberty of acquiring a pair of Terramax suits, they're in the cargo bay." "Suits... suits aren't cheap. How can we repay you?" Cassandra said, her eyes deadly serious.
Battlehymn, Part 7 "The suits, the ship, all of it was paid for by the generosity of your dearly departed brother." "What?" Cassie couldn't believe it. “What makes you think he wasn’t playing the game all along, my dear? Just playing a little differently than your other siblings." The woman looked out the window at the approaching surface. “After all, it’s a game of imagination, daring, and vision. And he may yet be proven to be the winner.” Cassie pondered that as they dropped toward the planet she'd called prison, on her first step to freedom.
Battlehymn, Part 7 Part 16 - Rondo To his surprise, Ichigo insisted that Shem spend most of his time out of the cohort’s headquarters and out in the colony proper. Shem would walk the kilometer or two down to a local green area, sit under a tree, and practice his guitar, trying to get used to the feel and look of the place. He’d pack a lunch and wander Haven. Once or twice he’d stop and play for a few local credits. He couldn’t use his old credit chit for fear of it identifying Haven as the place where he’d gone to ground. Later in the afternoon, he’d head back to the cohort’s headquarters, checking in on David, or catching a round of Mechs and Monsters. Markus ran those games like a particularly demanding overlord, cackling with glee whenever he caught Ivy or one of her team members making what to his mind was a tactical error. He was usually right, too. The Monsters tended to win quite a bit when Ivy and her team played, though Shem could tell they were getting better - they were surviving longer, at any rate. The cohort medic, Dr. Gates, checked him out thoroughly for trackers, chips and other implants. “You can never be too careful,” she muttered as she ran a scanner over his lower back. “Those Scythian shelters can be… possessive.” In the end, she did find a chip embedded in his left arm. “Looks like a simple id tag pretty standard for Imperial shelters. Want it out?” Shem nodded, and within a matter of minutes, the chip was out of his newlynumbed arm and sitting in a little dish. His skin healed without a scar from the tiny incision, and that was that. Dr. Gates looked at the chip with a frown. “You want to keep this around? You know, for sentimental reasons?” Shem shook his head, and chip - dish and all - went into an incinerator. “Good.” She washed her hands and smiled. “That’s that, then.” Shem was there when Dr. Gates, Markus and David were discussing his implants. “We could do all kinds of things with this - extra equipment, scanners, integrated weapons -” “But it wouldn’t look like regular flesh.” Dr. Gates interrupted.
Battlehymn, Part 7 David shrugged. “I just need an arm and a leg.” He pointed at Markus. “No super-powers. No upgrades. Just. The. Limbs.” He glanced at Dr. Gates. “But they don’t need to exactly look regular. Sometimes… it’s good to have a reminder.” He rubbed the stump where his right arm ended. “Just in case. Besides,” and he grinned, “sometimes a little sympathy can go a long way.” Markus laughed out loud, but Dr. Gates gave them both an arch look. Shem split Mara’s time between trips with him into Haven proper and time with David in sickbay. She was an instant favorite of Ivy’s, who would sneak her bits of station-grown fish whenever she got a chance. Meanwhile, Shem watched the cohort. They didn’t seem to fit the mold of the soldiers he’d been exposed to back on Scythia. Those had largely been gruff men, hard drinking, coarse. But the cohort was… professional. That was the word he kept coming back to. They drilled a lot, both in simulators and in suits using the space between the cohort HQ and the slope up to the colony docking ring to drill in small-team actions. They practiced unarmed combat when they weren’t drilling in their suits, jiu-jitsu and aikido. And Ichigo led at least half the cohort in meditation every morning at first light - when the station mirrors would rotate and light the interior of the colony proper. Shem took to joining them. He’d always been an early riser, and he thought that joining them might give him a sense of what made them different from other people. He always sat next to Jared, getting a kind word and a nod when he sat next to him. The engineer seemed to be improving also, smiling and engaging Shem in conversation whenever he saw him. Not to say that the rest of the cohort wasn’t trying, also. Norris Lockhart, the third small-team leader - was always making requests at dinner. When he asked for something Shem didn’t know - which was at least once a night, Shem would take the song as a challenge, and learn it that night, usually opening with it the next evening when Norris came walking in the door. Soon, the rest of the cohort was playing along, and while Shem knew a lot of the songs they were asking for, he eventually had to limit it to one request per person per night. At one point, Norris had brought out a set of bongo drums and provided some rhythmic
Battlehymn, Part 7 accompaniment. At first, everyone had laughed, but he’d been really good, and from that point on, he’d bring the drums about every other night. Norris was about six foot even, with thick black hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. Plain and unassuming, the man was a wizard in an armor, or when he was playing Mutants and Monsters. Whenever Markus saw him approach the table, his eyes would narrow, and he’d start reaching for the case for extra Monsters. Between Norris, Markus, Ivy, Jared, Dr. Gates and the rest of the cohort, he was starting to feel more and more at home. He almost didn’t notice Naji’s absence. She was always drilling or out of the cohort building. The first few days he’d visited the meditation practice, she’d been there, near the front. But he never saw her after that. When he did see her, she treated him… civilly, but never warmly. Her conversation was short and to the point, and he could tell that she was always looking for a way to get out of his presence as quickly as she could within the bounds of good manners. And once or twice, good manners took a back seat to just getting out of wherever he happened to be. Still, he tried. Besides Mara, she and Ichigo were the strongest connection to his old life - to his old home. And it was the two of them that had introduced him to his talent. He started experimenting with that, mostly in an attempt to stifle it. He knew it made Naji intensely uncomfortable, and more than once he’d heard people comment that she didn’t come to dinner any more. Two weeks into his stay, though, he was on his way to medical when he heard Naji and Ichigo’s voices coming from the rec room. “I can’t stay here, Ichigo.” Shem froze, ears straining. “Naji-” “No. I’ve tried, Ichigo. You know that better than anyone. I’ve been working my tail off, but it’s creating a division in the cohort. It’s creating a space between me and the rest of my team.” “Omar, Charlie and Perry are all perfectly fine with him.” A frosty silence was the only reply. “Are you saying that it’s either Shem or you?” 11
Battlehymn, Part 7 “That’s what I’m saying.” Ichigo sighed. “He hasn’t decided to join the cohort, Naji.” “Oh, come on, Ichi. He’s playing every night. He’s got them eating out of his hand. He’s meditating with you guys in the morning, for crying out loud. Of course he’s joining the cohort. He’s practically a member already.” “He’s playing, yes. He’s met everyone, and gets along with all of them - with one notable exception. But look at what he’s not doing. He’s not suiting up. He’s not drilling. He’s not a member of the cohort. And he knows it, and so does everyone else.” “So? What else can he do? Where else will he go?” Shem felt his chest tighten, and realized that his fists had clenched. He turned on his heel and headed back for his room. She was right. What was he thinking? Was this going to last forever? It couldn’t. It was time, he thought to himself. Time to make his decision. In… or out.
Battlehymn, Part 7 Part 17 - Dissonance Naji kept her distance from Shem as much as she possibly could, which was pretty easy now that they were at Haven, and she had an entire complex, and a space habitat besides to lose him in. The sparring match on the flight deck still troubled her. He’d been trying, she knew that, but he hadn’t been able to stop her from attacking him. Still, the way she’d felt as he sang to her… AT her, she reminded herself. He was singing AT me, not FOR me or TO me, but AT me… trying to bend my brain… Dinners were the worst time. Shem sang at every evening meal, and everyone else in the cohort loved it. Norris in particular seemed to appreciate the music. He was always trying to come up with new pieces he wanted Shem to play. And Shem played them all. Every now and then, she’d be headed someplace in the compound, and she’d hear the sounds of Shem practicing something else Norris had challenged him with. She caught herself stopping to listen once, and from that time forward, she steeled herself against it. Even the hint of a note would send her back down the other way, taking an alternate route, or even leaving the building. Shem would wave at her every time he saw her, too, his smile wide on his tan face. She’d responded with a frown the first time she’d seen it, and the hurt she’d seen… Ever since, she’d responded with a tight smile and a nod. She threw herself into training, both her own, and the new cohort applicants. David started calling her a mother hen, and the applicants were her “chicks”. It didn’t help that they were all girls. Ichigo’s niece, Ivy, was a particularly good student, and her two fellow trainees, Mary and Christine, were capable. They’d make a good team if things went well. It had been two weeks since the Tangram returned, and Naji was training the girls on the hangar deck. They’d suit up and mount up, just like they were taking their armors out, but the armor would not actually move - just running a simulated exercise. Naji pushed the girls as hard as she could, expecting the best from them, and getting it. Mary had just outscored Ivy for the first time. “Good job, Mary!” 13
Battlehymn, Part 7 “Aw, come on. Those were some lucky shots!” Ivy protested. “Let’s try that again.” Naji could hear the edge in Ivy’s voice. “Hey!” Mary countered. “I’ve been practicing a lot. It’s not my fault that you aren’t keeping up.” “There’s plenty of other people you two could be fighting. Let’s not fight each other,” Christine jumped in. Naji let them bicker a moment, then jumped in. “All right, that’s enough. Let’s take a break for lunch, and we’ll run the sim again this afternoon.” The girls shut down, Mary practically skipping from her armor, Ivy sulking as she made her way toward the mess. “Come on, let’s go into town and get some noodles.” Christine was saying. “My treat.” “All right!” Mary shouted with a whoop, which quickly died. “Oh! Hi, Shem. How are you doing today?” Naji froze. What was he doing here? She popped the cockpit on her simulator and stepped to the deck. Air conditioning or not, armors could get warm, and Naji had built up a bit of a sweat working the girls through their paces. “I’m doing all right. Someone said Naji would be up here. Is she busy?” Naji grabbed a towel from the rack and wiped her face and hands with it, settling it around her shoulders and heading for the door. Sometimes the only way out was through. “I’m right here, Shem. Girls, you better get your lunch, I’ll expect you back here in 90 ready to go.” The girls retreated quietly enough, but broke into giggles and gossip the moment they turned down the hall. Naji and Shem looked at each other, not speaking, for a long moment. “I, uh, haven’t seen you around much,” Shem said, rubbing the back of his head. “I’ve been busy. Not everyone has the luxury of sitting around playing the guitar all day.” She regretted the words the instant they left her mouth, and she could see
Battlehymn, Part 7 Shem flinch at her tone. She took a deep breath, holding up her hands. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that to come out that way.” “It’s all right,” Shem said, but his tone sounded forced. “I just came up from talking to Ichigo. I’ve decided not to join the cohort.” “Oh.” Naji blinked. "What happened? I thought you liked it here?” “I do. Haven is great. But, the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I think that I don’t want my music to become a weapon.” Shem paused. “Some people probably think that’s all it’s good for, and I’d hate for that to be true.” That stung a bit, and Naji rubbed her shoulders and arms, suddenly chilled. “So, how did Ichigo take the news?” “He said he understood, and wished me luck. Said his offer of a place to stay so long as I sing at supper was still open. But, I’m getting a job in town, and I found a little place. I’ll be moving in tonight.” Naji knew she should be relieved at the news, but something about it didn’t feel right. “Shem, Ichigo thinks we really need you.” “I know.” “He’s told me over and over that we may be the best, but eventually a skald is going to show up here, and we’re going to get overrun.” Shem shook his head and smiled. “Oh, I don’t know about that. You did pretty well against me.” “You haven’t been trained. You’re… you don’t know what you’ve got - how dangerous…” The words tumbled out of her mouth without conscious thought. She sighed deeply, then looked at him deep in his eyes for the first time since they’d fought. “Shem. I know I haven’t been friendly, but…” A part of her didn’t want to continue. “I don’t want you to leave because of me.” Shem’s shy smile twisted a little, and she could see the pain underneath just for an instant. “It’s not you, Naji. I meant what I said about being used as a weapon. I won’t do it. I won’t be a thug.” His face changed when he said that. It was the closest thing to hate she’d ever seen in him.
Battlehymn, Part 7 “Is that what you think we are?” “No. No! Of course not. But forcing people to do what I want? I’m not going to do that. That’s worse than any bully I ran into back in the shelters.” Naji closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. "Well, if your mind’s made up, all right.” She reached out a hand. “I guess I’ll see you around, maybe?” Shem took her hand, and Naji felt the thick calluses from his guitar playing. She hadn’t thought of it as the kind of work that built calluses. “Yeah, sure. I’ll swing by and say hi some time.” Naji could tell he meant it. And she could tell that he didn’t think she wanted him to. Not really. She nodded. “I’d like that, Shem.” She tried to mean it. Tried hard. But she could tell he wasn’t convinced. She wasn’t sure she was either. “Goodbye, Naji,” he turned and started back down the flight deck, then paused. “See you around, I guess.” Naji could hear the loneliness in his voice. She watched him go, and when he was gone, she sat down on the deck, and wiped her eyes. “Must be getting allergies,” she thought to herself. The sudden blare of the alarm made her jump. She stared up at the speaker for a moment before the realization struck. It was an alert. The Kami cohort was scrambling. Haven was under attack.
Battlehymn, Part 7 About the Author: Zachary Ricks is a writer, publisher, podcaster, and attorney. He learned to read at a young age, and had the benefit of a mother who read to him regularly. However, when he was five, his parents made the tactical error of taking him to see Star Wars. He's been a fan of genre fiction ever since, scaling his parent's bookshelf to get at his mom's collection of Piers Anthony, Alan Dean Foster, Terry Brooks and Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. He lives in Austin TX, with his wife and daughter. Find his current writings at madpoetfiles.com, and his publishing venture Flying Island Press - at www.flyingislandpress.com. 1) “If you loved this book (or any other book) the best thing that you can do for the author is to write a brief review, then post it on Facebook with a link to the purchase site.” The review doesn’t have to be extensive, just something as simple as “I am reading / listening to the coolest book. Check it out! Battlehymn - at exiles.madpoetfiles.com.” 2) You can also post your review on Goodreads or similar sites. Here are a few: librarything.com, shelfari.com, books.google.com (use with gmail), anobii.com, weread.com, chapters.indigo.ca, revish.com, reader2.com. 3) Post your review on your own private blog. Sure, it might only have a couple of dozen readers, but the six-degrees of separation principle suggests that your review could help create a domino-effect, one that would eventually help the book get made into a movie or otherwise go ballistic. 4) Tweet about the book to your friends.