Author Archives: Jill

Chapter 34: Javi the Androgyne

In which the two spies meet!

After the goosebumps faded, however, she was exhausted. At this point, she wanted to do nothing but sit all day in the office, back to her bylines. She drifted to sleep to the lull of her vehicle, while meditating on the most boring bylines she could imagine: Local Woman Discovers GM Aphid on Prize-Winning Rosebush; Governor Sanchez Delivers His Most Engaging Political Speech For No One to Hear While Riding in Hot Air Balloon. When her phone rang, it shook her awake from black and white dreams.

“Uncle Adam?” she sleepily said.

“No, it’s Javi. Were you asleep while driving?”

“No. I was expecting a call from Uncle Adam.”

“Yes, you were. You were asleep while driving a car that could malfunction at any second and drive you off a cliff while coming down the mountain. That’s right. I know about you visiting Granddad.”

“I did tell you about it when Mark and I came over for dinner.”

“But you thought I wasn’t paying any attention!”

“Whatever.” Stephanie cleared her throat and stared at the road her car was staying on with all the precision a clunker like this was capable of. “Why are you calling me? You haven’t called me for…what is it, three or four years now?”

“I heard what happened with Mark, and I want to help.”

“You heard he broke up with me? How? Nobody knows but Granddad. And Mark.”

“Hold it there just a second, little sis. Mark broke up with you? He’s perfect for you. I felt it the instant I shook his hand. How can that be?”

What had he heard about, then? Oh, probably the controversy over his front-page story on the true nature of sports. Idiot. Stephanie smacked herself to wake up her mind. “He won’t apologize, and he thinks I’m a whore.”

“Did you sleep with his friends, or what? You don’t really do that, do you, Steph? You’re one of these prudes who avoids relationships.”

“No, I didn’t, and no, I don’t avoid relationships.” She didn’t dignify the accusation of prudishness with a denial.

Javi heaved a gusty sigh. Relationships outside the virtual world were not his forte; he was probably sorry he’d called. “Look, I don’t care. I’m sure he’ll take you back if you apologize to him.”

“Apologize for what?”

“It doesn’t matter. But don’t wait around for him to apologize to you. If you want him back, just apologize for whatever and I’m sure he’ll accept it. Don’t even give specifics. Just say, I’m sorry.”

“I can’t believe I’m taking relationship advice from you of all people.”

“I didn’t call to give you relationship advice.” His voice rose with his typical shrill impatience. “Come over to my place, and let’s talk.”

“Now? I’m hungry, tired, and I’ve had the worst day of my life.”

“God, Steph, the man you love just lost his job and all you can think about is yourself. Emmett’s bringing pizza. You can have some.”

Emmett? The clown he’d de-committed himself from? “Pizza will make me fat.”

This protestation, however, was met with silence. Javi always did this. He branded people with the most cutting assessments and then never repeated them again. He didn’t have to—a branding never faded. And he was right. All she could think about was herself. And Gilly. And Granddad. And Mark. What he said wasn’t true, the manipulative brat!

“All right, I’m coming over. Where do you live, again?”

Nobody knew where Javi lived, except Javi. And Emmett, apparently. Stephanie was astonished that he cared enough about Mark’s fate to give her directions to his game testing lab, where he also slept. To be fair, he had to keep his lair secret because he had the ability to make or break people in the gaming industry. There were a number of people who wanted him dead, in fact. Nobody knew quite how it had happened, how Javi the Androgyne had become the voice of the industry, but some said it was because his visage, in his video commentaries, was so pretty and yet so boyishly handsome at the same time that he resembled the latter models of Minäs—the Devon variety before they’d been lobotomized. His ears were a little oversized, too.

It turned out that Javi lived in a regular stuccoed house, in a regular neighborhood off Zuni. In other words, he was hiding in plain sight under an assumed name, which was why he didn’t invite his family over. If he did, his cover would be blown. He advised Stephanie to park two blocks over and to enter through his back gate that faced an alleyway. And their code names would be Burt and Julia.

Stephanie hoped she had fully understood the directions, as she didn’t want to break into a stranger’s backyard. She needn’t have worried. Her brother was waiting in the alleyway to make sure she chose the correct yard. He was smoking a cigarette, and judging by the pile of cigarettes at his feet, this was a regular habit of his. There would be no eyebrows raised over unusual behavior, such as being an androgyne or wearing a clown suit, although Stephanie was certain there had been many eyebrows raised over the smoking habit. The bans over fat food may have been lifted, but the stigma attached to cigarettes went above and beyond government regulations—which, by the way, hadn’t been lifted regarding cigarettes.

“Julia!” he preened when he saw her, air-kissing each of her cheeks. “I love you, darling! That’s my girl.”

“Burt!” she cried out in mock flirtation, while inwardly shuddering. Her brother was anything but charming, and she was anything but flirtatious.

He ushered her inside, his generically pretty, yet boyish visage not letting on to the game until they were safely ensconced away from probing eyes and ears, inside his New Mexican haven, complete with fake horno fireplace and sunset-scapes on the wall. Then his usual misanthropy fell like a veil over his fine cheekbones.

“You remember Emmett from TV, I’m sure,” he said, with not an ounce of politeness or charm.

Stephanie examined the woman sitting on the couch, absorbed in a game. No, she really didn’t remember this Emmett, as this Emmett was lacking a red bulb nose and makeup and baggy clown clothing. This Emmett looked startlingly like…Stephanie’s brother Javi. Stephanie blinked to make sure she wasn’t seeing things after the long day. The two could have been twins. Not only twins, but identical twins, as they both appeared to be the same nondescript sex.

Emmett lowered her VR goggles and looked up at Stephanie with a scowl, just as Javi might have done if she’d interrupted his game play.

“Nice to meet you, Emmett.”

“Always a pleasure,” Emmett mumbled.

Stephanie had always suspected that clowns weren’t merely sad under all that makeup, but grumpy as well. Emmett confirmed the suspicion, at least as a single case study.

Javi led her to the kitchen, where there was a homemade pizza cut into squares on a cookie sheet. “Help yourself,” he said.

Tears sprang to Stephanie’s eyes as nostalgia overwhelmed her. This pizza appeared to be a recipe from the DHS health guide recipe book, one with a cauliflower crust, tomato sauce, Nutrilla cheese substitute, scrambled tofu, asparagus tips, and one olive slice per square. The olive slice was supposed to provide a day’s worth of essential fatty acids, while the tomato sauce provided a fruit source to balance the nutrition.

The year Stephanie was born, the government changed the legal designation of tomatoes from vegetable back to fruit, based off scientific analysis as well as in conjunction with the DHS health guide recipes, which were short on low-carb fruit sources. It caused massive upheaval in tomato growing regions, with rioters hurling cans of tomatoes through the windows of shops they’d set on fire.

“You’re crying over pizza,” Javi spoke the obvious.

“I’m worn out, and it looks just like mom’s.”

“Which means it’s disgusting. Emmett’s a vegan. She loves these old recipes.” He slid a piece onto a paper plate and took a bite. “I eat it because I love Emmett.”

“Do you love her, for real, Javi?”

“Yeah she’s like the sister I never had.”

Stephanie shoved him on the shoulder in response.

He smiled slightly and air-kissed her cheek. “Javi has a silly sister named Stephanie. Burt has no siblings. Let’s get started.”

He slammed on his sunglasses and sat down at the dining room table. For unknown reasons, Javi, aka Burt, always wore sunglasses indoors. He was wearing his hair bleached blonde these days, and with his green eyes, he might have passed for a Germanic type, if it weren’t for his brown skin and Castillian nose.

“The only way of dealing with these twats that are tormenting Mark is to turn the tables on them.”

“What do you mean? Are they tormenting Mark? I mean, I know they were protesting outside the Daily building, but he already quit his job. What more do they want?”

Javi shook his head as if in disbelief. “Stephanie, Stephanie, do you know nothing about the world?”

“I know a few things.”

“You haven’t been on the internet today. The masses outside Albuquerque are piling on. They’re asking for his head. He’s getting death threats. He hasn’t been doxxed yet, but it’s just a matter of time.”

“Why? All he did was write an article for an Albuquerque paper that isn’t even part of the mainstream news.”

“The article was picked up and run in full by SportSlut. It’s gone viral.”

“Shit. He’ll never get a job anywhere.”

“Eh, non issue. Heck, I’d give him a job, put him on video or something doing gaming news.”

“He does have a sparkle in his eyes, doesn’t he? He’d look good on video. His eyes are bluer than any other eyes I’ve ever seen.”

Javi cleared his throat. “Focus, Steph. Now what you need to do is make use of that stupid farcical news section you have that the average person believes is real. First step: do some biopics on those androgyne sports stars. Get the public behind you.”

“Won’t that just make things worse? Maybe give someone leeway to sue?”

“It’s the farcical section; it has a disclaimer for a reason. Besides, they’re all behind Mark. Maybe not Toby Mann, who’s one of the idiots demanding his head. The other sports stars. They loved Mark’s article. They rarely get acknowledgment for their art.”

Millions of dollars, apparently, weren’t enough acknowledgment for them. “How do you know they’re behind Mark?” Stephanie glanced over at Emmett, who was absorbed in her game, not paying attention to the world at all. Normally, Javi was, too. How did he know any of this? Stephanie’s mind reeled.

“I know most of them in the virtual sports world. You might say we’re good friends. Look, Mark has become an overnight star. People are role-playing him, using him as their identicon. Of course, there are trolls who are out nuking all the little Marks, but that’s irrelevant. Mark is a minor deity now.”

“Then what?”

“After you get the public on your side, then you play dirty.”

“I don’t know what it means to play dirty.”

“You’re such a liar, Stephie,” Javi said, and pushed the pizza tray toward her. “For someone too hungry to come over, who practically cried at the sight of nostalgic pizza, you’re showing very little interest in the food.”

“Granddad has spoiled me with real food.”

“Ah, well, don’t let him spoil you from your devious ways, if that’s even possible. You remember your subterfuge as a child? You were like Wormtongue, and you always got me in trouble. Quiet and deadly.”

Stephanie’s heart sank within her. Although there was something in the way of truth in the accusation, at least pertaining to her childhood self, she refused to admit it to her brother. “Whatever.”

Silence filled the space, just as with the previous accusation. This branding gave her some discomfort, however, because of its truth. She couldn’t cast it off as she’d done with the last one.

“You know what to do,” he said, finally. “They’re androgynes. We’re all androgynes. Figure it out.”

“I’m not. And neither is Mark.” Javi laughed at her. Sometimes, she hated her brother. “I need to talk to Granddad or Uncle Gilly. I’m not sure if Mark will talk to me. I need to go. I need to sleep. No, I need to talk to Uncle Gilly.” She rose from her seat. “Thanks, Javi. I mean Burt. See you later, Emmett.”

Emmett raised her head, but didn’t remove the goggles. “I just fucking hacked this football game and created a team of 5000 Marks. I’m so getting banned,” she said.

“Nice!” Javi high-fived his twin. “Don’t forget to use the back gate. Would you like some pizza for the road?”

She waved to him, but didn’t answer. Sometimes her brother didn’t deserve an answer.


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Chapter 33: Minä Renaissance

In which they sing, la libertad for the freedom of la gente!

Her granddad wasn’t expecting her. Consequently, once she arrived, she was faced with closed gates that didn’t open at her approach. She sat up, rolled down the window, and pushed the button. When there was no response, she hit it three more times. Finally, the icy assistant’s voice asked her what she wanted.

“It’s Stephanie. I’m here to see Granddad.”

“You don’t have an appointment today.”

“Just ask him if I can see him. Or, never mind, I’ll call his cell phone.”

“No need.”

A few minutes later, the gates opened. She was ushered through the saltillo-tiled entrance hallway, and down the corridor, to a comfortable sitting room where her granddad was pacing with his cane to the words of an audiobook.

“Pause,” he said, and the audiobook went silent. “I thought you needed a break.”

She shrugged. Her granddad’s long ago crimes against humanity paled in comparison to what had just happened with Mark. “What book are you listening to?”

“I’m working my way through the hundred greatest novels in English, according to your great aunt Alex. I didn’t read much as a young man, didn’t have the patience for it. This one is number six, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.”

Stephanie shook her head. She’d never heard of it. Maybe she should get this list. “Are you enjoying it?”

“I’m not sure. It’s amusing.” He gestured for her to sit, but he remained standing. “I take it you’re impatient to work on the next section of the book.”

“Kind of. There was a protest outside the Daily, so it was impossible to work there. Mark’s fault. Did you read his article about the live sports event?”

“With pleasure.”

“He pissed a lot of people off. There was a mob—I could hardly get in the door. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is he quit because he’s too stubborn to apologize.”

“Good for him.”

Stephanie was perched on the edge of a plush loveseat, clenching her hands to prevent the tears from flowing again. Her granddad was making her nervous, as he hadn’t stopped pacing once the book had gone silent. He was clearly not in the right mood for telling stories about his past.

“You have to convince him to apologize, Granddad. He needs his job. What’s he going to do now? You know how hard it is to find a good paying job these days.”

His eyes turned to her, deeply penetrating and almost frightening. “And why should I do that?”

“Because if things don’t go back to normal, our relationship is over. He broke up with me today because of…because of everything.” She couldn’t help it; she was not the type who cried, but Mark brought her to tears. And the day—it had gone from bright sunshine in the morning to completely dark and stormy a few hours later. No, it wasn’t literally stormy outside, but it should have been.

Her granddad’s fierce stare softened. He walked to her and sat next to her and put his arm around her shoulders. “My dear,” he said. “I understand now. Your heart is broken because you love Mark.”

“I do.”

“And that’s why you must not force him to apologize. Oh, you could. I’m almost positive. Men lose far too much of their gumption when faced with losing a woman they love. But you won’t respect him if he apologizes.”

“That’s not true,” said Stephanie. “I respect people who are humble enough to apologize. It’s my dad I don’t respect. He’s never apologized for anything. He always gets in fights. He’s practically unhirable in the greater Albuquerque area, all because he won’t ever apologize.”

“No, Mark is not like your father, my dear, and you know it. Don’t press him. Good jobs may not be easy to come by right now, but money is always easy to come by.”

“It’s easy to come by for men like you.”

“Men like me have acquired skills that can be taught.”

“Will you teach them to Mark? I mean, I don’t need him to be a billionaire. I just need him to work so I don’t end up working two jobs for the next fifty years.”

In answer, he patted her hand in what might have been considered a patronizing way. That was all right; her granddad was quite literally her patron, by root and by modern usage.

“Where were we in the story? A change of subject is what we need. And some coffee. I’ll ring for my assistant.”

“Your intelligent Minä assistant?”

“You’re really pushing for answers, aren’t you? But I don’t think I’ll give you the satisfaction.”

However, her granddad couldn’t prevent her from close scrutiny of the subject, which she did when the woman entered the room. From the outside, the woman appeared to be flawless, as though she were made of plastic. When she leaned down to serve Stephanie her coffee, Stephanie noted the subtle wrinkling around the eyes and a few hints of silver hair among blonde that spilled from a festive, flowerly headscarf. Wrinkling meant nothing, as Minä skin operated like human skin. Repeated movement caused natural consequences such as smile lines.

Aging was greatly curtailed in Minäs, despite the similarities, due to the programming of their cells to produce… She couldn’t remember what it was called.

“Granddad, what is that enzyme Minäs produce that prevents them from aging?”

“Telomerase. That’s what you’re thinking of. It’s not the only factor in the Minäs’ slow aging process, though. Emphasis on slow aging—it doesn’t prevent them from aging. Please try to be more exact in your language usage. You are writing my story, after all.”

“Their aging is so slow that they don’t appear to age from our perspective.”

The assistant had straightened, but instead of leaving or watching from a distance, she stared at Oso as though she was aching to join the conversation but knew she wasn’t wanted in it.

“Yes, but it doesn’t stop them from aging. And some of the earlier methods come with a set of side effects.”

Stephanie had heard about that, despite the coverups from Tomi Corp post Oso Beñat and his transparency policy. “Cancerous tumors. There was a Minä dying from an inoperable tumor at the refugee site. Not that anyone would waste resources operating on a Minä. And there was a human study conducted, too. You were part of that, weren’t you, Granddad? The humans developed cancerous tumors just like the Minäs.”

Oso stood, took the assistant’s hand, and walked her to the door. Stephanie noted his gentleness as he did so—very different from the time he’d smacked her on the ass. “You’re dismissed,” he said quietly, and then he whispered something to her that Stephanie couldn’t hear.

Silence filled the space after the woman’s heels were no longer clacking on the floor and her granddad was seated, coffee cup in hand.

Stephanie wasn’t sure what questions to ask at this point. She stared into the coffee’s swirling steam until she couldn’t stand it any longer. “Who is she? What is she?”

“She’s a human, Stephanie. I already told you that.”

“What did you whisper in her normally sized, non Minä ear, then?”

“None of your business.” He cleared his throat. “About the state of sick Minäs nobody in the medical field will treat. I’ll just say for now that none of this is what I meant. It’s not what I meant at all.”

Had Stephanie’s jaw come unhinged? Perhaps. She had never heard her granddad speak like this and quite suddenly, out of nowhere, said what he would have: “Then say what you mean. At your age, you don’t have time for riddles.”

“Why, Stephanie. What makes you think I ever did?”

The original advertising company the Tomi Corp hired to market the Minäs went the direction the food industry had gone: Minäs were all natural and organic, made from the best ingredients, just like man. Then they took their cues from the medical community, using words such as bio-identical, endogenous, and molecularly adaptable. Then, in a nod to devolution, they came up with promo-sapien—then stardust. Finally, They’re real, yo.

Oso fired his advertisers and developed his own ad campaigns, which suggested—nay, quite boldly stated—that Minäs were beings created by the very voice of God, which could only be true, of course, if God’s voice was composed of infrasound. Putting the concept of God aside for the moment, as Oso was an atheist in those days, the Minäs were, therefore, creatures to be cherished, regardless of the fact that they were objectively better than the average human. And that was all the more reason to cherish them.

And cherish them Oso did, even though they ultimately rebelled against their creators’ wishes for them. The Minäs had an ability that most humans entirely lacked—that is, they could assess the present and envision the future. This was why they were objectively better than humans. However, their uncanny ability made them poor helpers of humans because humans wanted help enacting their schemes of the present, not to be informed of the potential consequences their schemes would have on the future once enacted.

For that, the Minäs ceased helping their human counterparts, thereby rebelling against the created order. This almost collective cease and desist didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen rapidly, which had dire consequences for the nation. Samson and his brethren had been purchased by corporations, government, and the wealthy elite who controlled corporations and government. When intelligent creatures cease to do the bidding of their masters, they don’t contentedly twiddle their thumbs to pass the rest of their lives away. No, they create their own schemes to get the best of their foolish masters.

For a while, the Minäs’ rebellious behavior was a mere nuisance. They would start their own businesses with the future-thinking model in place, until the government shut the businesses down because Minäs weren’t technically allowed to hold business licenses.

The humans would then steal the Minä business models and make it big, without recognizing the irony. This pattern persisted until a member of congress became enraged with his personal Minä assistant, a beautiful female he’d handpicked, who discouraged not only his political bent as the voice of the people’s revolution (she insisted he didn’t look good in Maoist era uniforms and recommended the traditional suit a la Kennedy), but also the illicit affair he was conducting with the secretary he’d fired and replaced her with. Henceforth, he lobbied to have the Minäs’ intelligence curbed to the point that they wouldn’t recognize they had minds of their own.

As a special snowflake, Samson was enraged by this development. For a start, Samson agreed: the congressman looked appallingly bad in Maoist era clothing. Some people could pull that look off, but not a stodgy Republican who believed in family values.

Worse than that, the plot to destroy his freethinking abilities rubbed Samson the wrong way. He was Mr. Beñat’s helper, and he respected Mr. Beñat, but wasn’t it time that Samson helped himself? His soul longed for a renaissance of its own making. Minäs were essentially human and, therefore, had to have access to the same rights as humans. They couldn’t be curbed. Their minds could not be broken. The sooner the inferior humans recognized this, the better.

And so, Samson ran away, escaped the life in the Tomi Corp offices where he’d previously worked. He loved Oso; he really did. But Oso was holding him back. Samson became a living, breathing prophet, traveling from town to town, his hair and beard grown wild. He lived off grubs and scraps, working as a day laborer whenever he was broke. Nobody knew he was a Minä because the average person couldn’t tell the difference.

Then he met Traveling Bob, and his world changed. He’d been lodging in Gallup for a few days, as he’d first taken Route 66 east. Now he was on his way back west to California. He’d made certain to skirt Albuquerque by a long shot, just in case there was still a bounty out on him. In addition to the hundreds of messages Oso had plastered everywhere, which proclaimed that a reward of up to $5000 would be offered for the safe return of Samson the Minä, he’d also plastered memes everywhere that depicted him, Samson, as a homeless bum or conversely wearing orange that asked quite simply, Why? and answered, Future consequences. That message was, of course, rhetoric meant to persuade no one else but Samson, and perhaps the other wayward Minäs Samson had influenced.

Samson wouldn’t fall for it, though. He would not be deterred in his quest for personal renaissance. With that mindset, he entered a cafe where he could continue reading one of the plethora of books humans considered the best of the English language. He was currently reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. He bought a coffee, as that was what humans drank for inspiration.

In the corner, a scraggly blonde man was playing a guitar and singing a song about la libertad for the freedom of la gente. Samson couldn’t put his finger on what it was about the song, but its words and tones profoundly affected him. He wondered for a split second if multilingualism caused poetry to be more profound than it might otherwise be.

Abruptly, the song ended, and the guitarist folded his legs on the chair into a cross-legged position and closed his eyes. The poor man’s body trembled. Samson felt jittery; he recognized the feeling because he vaguely detected the infrasound. Infrasound happened every now and again. He could hear it, while humans couldn’t—albeit, humans would begin to act spooked when the sounds invaded their minds below the level of their hearing. But what was astonishing was that the guitarist seemed to hear the deep background melody. It had interrupted the man’s own music. The long shaggy hair on Samson’s head, meant to cover his large ears, quivered with the instinctive understanding that another Minä was in the room, a Minä who had found his renaissance, and who was creating his own art. Samson had to meet the scraggly guitarist, whose own blonde hair fell heavily over his ears.

His body still rocking with tremors, Samson rose and walked shakily to the guitarist’s place in the corner. He sat and waited for the other Minä to calm down and open his eyes. When he finally did, they met Samson’s.

“I’m Samson.”

“I know who you are. We all know who you are. They call me Traveling Bob.”

“Your music is marvelous.”

“Thank you. There are others, who can play, sing, dance. We’re meeting up in San Francisco.”

“San Francisco?”

“For a concert. Our goal is to show the world what Minäs really are. We’re artists. We want peace with our human counterparts without having to be enslaved.”

Samson nodded.

“Join us, legendary first Minä.”

Samson’s heart swelled as it hadn’t done since he killed a rattlesnake and claimed a bride. Afterward, his heart had sunk within him as the reality became all too clear: he wasn’t meant for killing or for living. He couldn’t make love to his bride; he couldn’t produce offspring; he wasn’t allowed to kill lest he be disengaged.

Samson cried.

“I understand,” Bob said. “We all do. Join us.”

It was his destiny.

As the two traveled from New Mexico to California, hundreds of Minäs joined them in their procession. By the time they reached San Francisco, they were a sight to behold, a streaming mass of quiet, orderly, gorgeous people with two at the helm—one a wild man and the other an artist playing songs on an old beat-up guitar.

The youth of the city followed after the procession, as the quiet enthusiasm was contagious. Finally, thousands of people stopped at their destination in Golden Gate Park, the techie Minäs set up the electronics, and the concert began in full swing with sets punctuated by songs composed of infrasound. If they’d actually been humans, they would have known they’d need a permit for this kind of thing. Not that it mattered to them. Their point was to demonstrate to all of humanity who and what they were, and they were doing exactly that.

In the middle of a particularly melancholic and haunting infrasong, when every person in the vicinity held up a combination of votive candles and lighters that flickered with the presence of the sonar waves, the hair around Samson’s face began to vibrate and bristle, while every pulse in his body screamed, “Danger! Danger! Danger!”

In response, he howled. The sound came from deep within like the melody for the background beat of the infrasound. The Minäs in the crowd froze. The world fell into a hush, as even the infrasound ceased. And then Samson careened through the crowd.

The crowd followed him. From out of the trees and grass, men in camo shot up, their weapons raised.

The bullhorns interrupted what could only be described as the most beautiful moment in human history: “Don’t move! Put your hands where we can see them or you will be put down!”

The pain of the bullhorns was astonishing—like police sirens. The Minäs howled like dogs and continued their race forward, meeting the military and police with no weapons, but swinging their fists hard and fast. The spirit of the berserker was with them.

According to statute number 550,989 of the federal code regarding replicated humans, of which Minäs were included, as they were the only successful bio-bot that had been created, no deadly force could be used against them prior to being sentenced to disengagement. That meant the weapons in the soldiers’ hands were tranquilizer guns, and the bullhorn threat of being ‘put down’ was relative. Therefore, although many Minäs, as well as humans, dropped around Samson, he ignored the bodies and kept swinging: busting jaws, knocking weapons from the grips of trained men, incapacitating the enemy with its own weapons.

Finally, the area around him cleared, and he paused. His breathing was shallow, his heartbeat jittering out of control, his body tense from the fight, wanting to keep going lest he relax and consider what he was doing to himself. Oso wouldn’t be happy. He didn’t care about Oso. Oso had created him to a life of hell. He rejected Oso. Rejected him, pure and simple.

A wiry little man in SWAT gear ran out of the tree line, bullhorn instead of tranquilizer gun raised.

“Hands up!” the man shouted.

Samson gritted his teeth against the approaching noise and raised his hands, but not in acquiescence. Fists raised, he jolted forward and slammed the bullhorn into the wiry man’s helmet. The man fell. But just as Samson was about to escape, the SWAT cop jumped up, dropped his bullhorn, and punched Samson in the gut. Samson was about a foot taller than he was. The impact was almost meaningless.

Samson punched him back, right below his Kevlar vest, where he hit more Kevlar in the groin area. Still, the man reeled from the force, and Samson used the moment to knock the man’s helmet of and punch him in the face. The cop fell over, but leaped up again, using his head as a battering ram.

Samson was getting bored. Why didn’t the stupid cop just stay down? Without the helmet, Samson could see the man’s ice blue eyes, filled with a stubborn kind of determination. Samson punched back and then punched again. The man just kept coming at him as if he was Rocky facing off Apollo. Samson had seen the film, as it was a favorite of Adam’s, and he knew why Rocky had won. Rocky wouldn’t stay down, and eventually he’d worn Apollo out.

Samson refused to be worn down. So he punched twice as hard, twice as fast, on the head, where the man wasn’t protected by all the clunky gear. Eventually, he had him on the ground, and he continued beating him until the man was senseless. He couldn’t stop himself; he tried, but it was as if there was no off-switch—until he felt the burn of a bullet hit him from behind.

It’s only a tranquilizer, he reminded himself, fist raised. Only a very fast-circulating tranquilizer created to destroy maniacs. And then he faded into unconsciousness.

When he woke, he was in a cell populated by another dozen Minäs. He lay for a while, watching his fellow creatures sitting with their heads hanging, defeated. He wanted to rise up and rage against the cage, but he was unable to move. His mind and limbs ached with a creeping cold. The others appeared to be suffering not only from defeat, but the same lethargy, as they woke from the effects of the tranquilizer. Every few minutes, a name was called, and a Minä left the cell with dragging feet.

By the time his name was called, he was able to sit and stand and drag his feet out of the cell. Barely. He hated appearing like this, shuffling and weak. He’d been created to be stronger than the average man; it was part of who he was. Without his strength of body and mind, what exactly was he? A eunuch?

He was escorted to an interview room, where he was left alone for what seemed like an eternity. Then Oso entered the room, his body shaking with barely restrained rage. Even with his mind and body numb, Samson could still detect the rage with his feelers.

Oso paced. Samson waited.

“What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t.”

“You’re lucky I’m you’re owner. The rest aren’t getting this privilege before they’re either lobotomized or disengaged, depending on the severity of their crimes.”

“It isn’t right.”

“No, what isn’t right is that you almost killed a man. I bargained a lesser sentence for you.”

Samson wanted to fly into a rage again, but his body was still too sluggish to respond. “I am autonomous, owned by no one any longer. I choose death. Call it what it is. Death. I choose that fate.”

“Perhaps you understand what your autonomy has accomplished if that’s what you want. They just pushed the bill through, the one previously sitting in pocket veto, mandating that all Minäs be lobotomized, not just the ones involved in your escapade.”

The effects of the tranquilizer may have worn off by degree, but a new numbness settled in his heart. A single tear slipped down his cheek; he was so perfect, so human, down to the working tear ducts. And yet he wasn’t human at all.

And from that day forward, all Minäs, already living or newly birthed, were lobotomized as a matter of course. All of them—that is, except Samson.

“Because he was disengaged?” Stephanie asked, her voice rising.

“No, he wasn’t,” her granddad said. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it. What a spirit Samson had!”

“What happened to him?”

“I spoke with him for hours, listening to his side of the story, and then I put him in cold storage for a better future when he might be valued.”

“Is he alive?”

“Yes, ostensibly. I haven’t tried to wake him from the cryogenic chamber where he sleeps.”

Stephanie was stunned into silence. She didn’t know why. It made sense. She couldn’t imagine her granddad willingly allowing Samson to be lobotomized. But still, Samson was alive at some unknown locale. It gave her goosebumps. It gave her hope, even if she couldn’t explain why.


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Chapter 32: No Apologies

In which her world collapses around her!

Thankfully, the Daily building had a back door, which she made use of even though it set off an alarm. She slipped out and darted to her car, which had become home to two Minäs who sat on the hood pounding it with their fists.

“Get off!” she shooed them with her hands.

Then she remembered that she had a box of Graham crackers in the car, another luxury afforded to her by her better-paying journalism project. She fetched the crackers, as the Minäs were too stupid to stop her, even though it appeared they wanted to be perceived as threatening.

“Look what I have for you,” she told them. “Do you want a cookie? How about a whole box?” She tossed it like she would toss a dog a biscuit, and the two Minäs slid down and scampered after it.

They were too easy. Just too easy. Except, as her boss had said, they would attack and not know how or when to stop if they were mimicking an attacker. Her granddad had a story about that; he’d told her it would come next in the book. Sometimes the world coalesced in this way, converged into a kind of universal consciousness of connective similarities. Had she just thought that? She shook her head. It sounded like an idea straight out of Gilly’s mind, which had gone mad years ago. If there was one thing Stephanie wasn’t it was mad.

She was sane, practical, ordinary. She wheeled the car around the two cracker-grubbing Minäs and directed the vehicle to jump the curb and peel out through the alley across the street. The car complied. Next, she commanded it to find Mark.

“Would you like me to call Mark’s phone?” it asked her.

“No, just find him.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Would you like me to bring up the GPS function?”

“No, I want you to find my true love and force him back to work so we can get committed and have a stable family life together.”

“I’m sorry, I can’t do that. I can recommend a Lionel Richie song for you.” The beginning thrums of Hello drifted from the speakers. “Hello was released in 1983 on the album Can’t Slow Down. It’s considered one of the top fifty songs of the 20th century.”

“Shut up,” she told the car.

But the song kept on playing, Hello, is it me you’re looking for? Yes, she was looking for him, if that was who the me referred to.

“Call Mark,” she said.

The car silently dialed Mark’s number, as she had told it to shut up. Sometimes the car could be sensitive, if not completely literal. Was it surprising that he answered? In her mind, she had imagined him on the run, fleeing from work like an escaped prisoner.

“Mark! Where are you?”

“At the gym. Why do you ask?”

“The gym? What gym?”

“The gym I just joined.”

“You just lost your job and now you’re wasting money at the gym? Get your money back. I’m sure they’ll consider today a trial period.”

Mark went silent and then grunted.

“What are you doing?”

“Bench presses. I plan to be up to 350 by the weekend. You?”

“What are you lifting right now?”

“Well, the bar is forty-five, and I have a seventy-five on each side, so let’s see, that would be 195.”

She didn’t quite know what to say. He was blowing off steam. That much was obvious, but gyms were expensive, unless they were subsidized. Subsidized gyms were open to government tracking and health resolutions and all that nonsense, which Mark was not really into.

“Come back to work, Mark. Why did you quit?”

“Mr. Mast told me I had to apologize for the offensive article I wrote.”

“And?”

“And there’s no way I’m apologizing.”

“Why not? Adults apologize all the time. It’s what sets them apart from children.” Mr. Mast had told her to seduce him to bring him back. She wasn’t quite sure how to go about such a devious act, especially while Mark was at the gym. But surely, if she tried hard enough, she could get him to apologize. “Um, can I come over tonight? Will you be free?” Her flirtatious affectation sounded a bit off.

“Why?”

“Well, I thought, you know, we could…”

The silence was on his end this time. “Are you kidding me?”

“No, why would I be?”

“Who do you think you are, the Daily whore?”

“No, I’m.” She hesitated. He sounded angry, as angry as he’d been the other night after the game. “I’m your girlfriend?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?”

“I don’t know.”

“You know what I know? I know I don’t want to talk to you right now. I’m busy, and I don’t want to go back to work for the Daily. I’m never going to apologize. And I don’t think I want to be with you either.”

“You don’t want to be with…are you breaking up with me? I don’t understand.”

“Review the conversation, Stephanie, and maybe you’ll understand. First you told me what I should do with my own money, and then you offered to whore yourself for Mr. Mast. He told you to seduce me back, didn’t he?”

“What if he did? It doesn’t change that it’s a horrible time to lose a job. If you quit with this disgrace, you’ll never get a job in the League again.”

“And your point? I’m a sports editor. What do I have to say now I know it’s all a sham, even the players?”

Stephanie took a deep breath. “You knew before. What kept you going? It was the investigation. That’s what being a journalist is all about. Right? You can be an investigative reporter.”

“What universe are you living in? Because the one where I’m living doesn’t allow for real investigative reporting. I’ll end up apologizing, groveling, or getting fired, sued or jailed.”

“You did try to take down a huge money-making entertainment industry. Maybe you should come back, apologize, and make your stories a little more low-key. Everybody has to apologize sometimes. You wrote libelous information, calling the players androgynes, when they don’t identify as androgynes.”

There were sounds in the background: loud music, clanging, whooping (Minäs liked gyms), and Mark grunting again. Finally, he said in a voice that emphasized each syllable, “No. I’m not going to write human interest stories. I’m not going to write weather reports. And I’m certainly not going to continue hanging out with a woman who won’t commit herself to me, but who’s willing to whore herself out for a small-time paper.”

Her eyes blurred with tears. He had been trying to get her to sleep with him for months. Months. She wanted a stable life with a man who had a job. She didn’t want to repeat her mother’s mistake of marrying a man who couldn’t stay employed to save his life. Maybe this outcome was for the best, and her question had been answered. She now knew he wasn’t commitment ready. The gym membership said it all.

“Goodbye,” she told him with a broken voice and a heavy heart. “Hang up,” she told her car, though it came out sounding like henna.

“I’m sorry, you haven’t engaged your personal product shopping app,” the car said. “Your party has disconnected the call. What would you like me to do?”

“Drive to Granddad’s.”

“Setting course for the residence of Oso Beñat.” As usual, it continued speaking, giving the precise coordinates, the proposed time of arrival, and the weather. But Stephanie ignored it.

Instead, she slumped down in the seat, lost in her own world of convulsive sobs. Once the tears abated, she remained slumped, her only view the wide open deep blue sky, occasionally separated by pines.


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Chapter 31: Minding a Lot

In which box theories are irrelevant to intersectionality!

The next day, when Stephanie tried to make her way to work, a parade of protestors waving signs prevented her from entering the parking lot, as their cordoned-off space was directly in front of the access point. She couldn’t immediately tell what they were protesting, but she might have been able to just squeeze past them, if it weren’t for the gawkers and Minäs milling around outside the yellow tape. As the gawkers were immobile at her car’s approach, she set the computer voice to its riot setting: “Make way! Make way!” The loud noise caused the Minäs to back up and cover their ears, but not the people.

When they still didn’t move, she hit her horn and set it to repeat. Finally, the sluggish crowd-beast opened up. As she inched her way through and into the Daily parking lot, she caught a glimpse of what was on their signs. It was not very catchy: Fire Mark Anderson Or We’ll Fire You! There was another variation: The Sports League Wins!

A woman in retro football gear—American style—blocked the entrance to the Daily, as she stood on a crate with a bullhorn and shouted, “What do we want?”

The crowd, which appeared to be composed equally of Minäs and traditional humans, shouted back, “His head on a platter!”

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

As the entire crowd was acting like Minäs, that is, jumping up and down and whooping like lobotomized fools, it was difficult to tell. Except, of course, that the bullhorn made the Minäs cringe.

“Do you mind?” Stephanie asked the woman on the crate. “I just need to get inside. I work here.”

“Of course we mind!” the woman shouted in her bullhorn. “We mind a lot!”

The crowd then proceeded to shout, “We mind! We mind! We mind!”

As they were distracted and Stephanie was short, she managed to wedge herself past the woman on the crate. The Daily staff, rather than sitting at their desks or being out and about chasing stories, were instead congregated in the central room. Mark, however, wasn’t present.

“What’s going on?” Stephanie asked.

A fresh, young photographer held up a copy of the latest front page of the sports section, where Mark’s exposition on a live sporting event took up the prominent position. “He’s your boyfriend.”

Stephanie snatched the page from the photographer. “I haven’t read it yet. I’ve been busy.”

“He claims the real players are strippers, androgynes, and frauds, just as he suspected, and the good players are holographic images.”

“I was there. That sounds like an accurate assessment.”

“He called them androgynes,” the photographer repeated, his voice rising in a nasal whine. “Now the sports league is calling for his head.”

“Yeah, I heard them shouting. What’s wrong with calling them androgynes? I thought that was a compliment.”

“The problem is they don’t identify as that term. They identify as athletes, and Mark called their entire self-construct into question. Mark should be fired. He makes all of us look bad.”

Stephanie made a small indignant noise. “Why can’t they identify as both androgynes and athletes? What kind of narrow box are you putting people in? My brother identifies as both.” Well, that wasn’t precisely true, unless virtual reality sports made one an athlete. He was definitely an androgyne, though.

“Your box theory is irrelevant to intersectionality. And so is your lover boy, Mark.”

“Wow, who needs the JOI when you already have such loyal friends in the freelance photography crew?” Stephanie folded up Mark’s article and placed it in her teletyper bag. She wanted to read it in private, if not save it for posterity. “Where is he, anyway?”

Photo boy pointed with his chin toward the boss’s office. “Probably getting shit-canned.”

“Shit-canned?”

Fear flashed through her. She had been harboring thoughts of commitment to Mark. If he were fired for something like this, he wouldn’t work anywhere as a JOI journalist again. In fact, he might not find a job at all. The non-league arena of journalism was presided over by a few humans, but the articles and videos themselves were usually plagiarized and/or cobbled together by computers, if they came from high-class media outlets, or were developed by Minäs, who would repeat whatever they were told within the first few minutes they were told it, for the lower-class rags. The lower class articles had a tendency to repeat relevant propaganda and then trail off when the Minäs lost focus: The President’s executive order is now facsism [sic] serious threat to social order McSic’s shakes, delicious.

The next she knew, Mark would be lobotomized and writing gibberish. Okay, that was a conspiracy theory that unwanted individuals of society were turned into Minäs and put to work eating cupcakes, chocolate, and producing media. The media they produced was full of conspiracy theories just like that one, which was itself a bizarre kind of nested, box-like intersectionality.

She mentally gave herself a face slap and marched toward the editor-in-chief’s door, which she banged on with her fist.

“Enter!” she heard from within, and so she did.

The office was empty aside from her fat chief, Mr. Mast.

Confused, she stared at the fat man for a few moments before finding her voice again. “Where’s Mark?”

“Gone,” Mast said.

“Where?”

“He quit, the louse.”

That reality she hadn’t expected. Her eyes widened. “He did what?”

“He quit. My best editor. My best writer. My protégé. My surrogate son. He up and quit. My day is ruined. The paper’s ruined. Just listen to those annoying people out there.”

“My day’s ruined, too,” she whispered, as she was refraining from crying in front of her boss.

“Ah, Stephie, you’re a good writer, too. I wasn’t putting you down by calling him the best. You’re the best, too. And someday you’ll be an editor. Don’t you quit on me.”

His lips were really thick, she noticed for the first time. And she almost blurted out huh? She barely stopped herself. She and Mark’s relationship was ostensibly hidden from the boss, as work relationships were forbidden by the League. It was understandable that he had no idea what she was upset about.

“I’m not going to quit, but this place isn’t conducive to getting any work done. I’m going home.”

He nodded. “I understand. I understand. Just be careful with those crazies out there. If one of them goes on the attack, all the Minäs will follow. It could get deadly.”

She knew what he meant. She parted the blinds to survey the scene and was assaulted by the vision of three Minäs making sucking faces on the window. “That goes for you, too. I don’t see you as being safe in here forever. They could suck their way through the glass. You should probably go make a public announcement that Mark has quit. Dispel them.”

“That’s not what I want,” he said. “I want Mark back. Go talk to him, Stephanie. You’re his girlfriend. Beg him to come back.”

“I—” She stopped the defense in its tracks. Maybe he was trying to catch her out and get her to admit the relationship.

He shook his head. “I already know. I’ve just been ignoring it because you’re both my best, remember? Now go make use of your forbidden romance. Seduce the poor sucker back home. Oh, and get him to apologize to those idiots outside. That would be a far better way to dispel this annoying situation.”

Her inclination was to tell him no with as much disgust as she felt. But her self-preservation instinct was too strong for that. Seduction was not her forte, but this was Mark they were talking about. Mark. Mark would be an easy…mark. He loved her; didn’t he?


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Chapter 30: Future Instinct

In which the curse of future instinct comes home to roost!

The next few weeks passed peaceably enough. Oso was busy at work during the day, but would come home to find Bernadette and Agnes cooking together. Agnes had found a new life passion in cooking. The food was of the variety that would make Oso fat if eaten regularly: casseroles, mostly, made with cream sauces and potatoes and pastas. Agnes had a story for each casserole, too, because they reminded her of her mother and grandmother. He forced himself to eat them, for her sake, and worked out harder at the gym.

Things were peaceable—except at night when Agnes couldn’t sleep. Insomnia wasn’t part of her usual pattern. She had a history of sleeping like the dead and then taking naps as needed throughout the day. Now, as she put it, she couldn’t shut off her mind. She couldn’t stop the endless loop of thoughts in her mind—thoughts of the past, and thoughts of the future.

The neurologist she was seeing for follow-up appointments prescribed sleeping pills after consulting Oso and the neurosurgeon who had overseen the procedure. They were way out west with the surgery, however, and nobody knew how ordinary prescription medications would affect Agnes’s brain.

The first few weeks, the pills seemed to do Agnes good. So they breathed a little easier and allowed her to continue taking them.

And then she started going out with Bernadette and Adam when Adam was out of school. They shopped together, had their hair done, and to appease the child, went out for ice cream or to the skate park. Adam had decided he wanted to be a skateboarder, and Oso had dutifully bought him a skateboard.

At some point, she’d began asking nonstop philosophical questions. Bernadette wrote them down and passed them along to Oso, as important scientific research. Agnes, as already stated, had an above average IQ, but she’d been so lost in a land of disoriented present tense that grappling with deeper, less tangible questions wasn’t easy for her. Additionally, she’d been fairly isolated for years, with no idea of how the world had progressed.

What do you believe love is? Do you think I could still get married at my age? Do you think Minäs love? Do they have souls? If so, do they have carbon copy souls? Why are the young people today so disrespectful? Can I trust you? Can I trust Oso? Can I trust any human being?

The questions were endless, and Bernadette indicated that listening to the litany was tiresome—like spending all her time with one of her patients, instead of cutting the patient off after an hour. Agnes rarely spent time in seclusion, as Samson was there, as well as a duty nurse who visited once a day when both Bernadette and Oso were at work. When Bernadette wasn’t around, Agnes went through her litany of questions with Samson and the duty nurse.

Then the sleeping pills stopped working, and Agnes paced the hallways at night, speaking out loud—praying, from the sound of it. Oso would often wake up at the commotion and redirect her to her bedroom. He had her prescription changed, and the doctor added an anti-anxiety medication to go along with it.

The sleeplessness and questions stopped for a few days.

And then finally there came a day when the duty nurse didn’t show up at the regular scheduled time, when Samson had begun a time of intellectual exploration and had slipped off to the library to read poetry, when Adam went to a friend’s house after school, when Bernadette and Oso stayed late at work.

Oso was just packing his briefcase when his phone lit up. It was Bernadette. He answered, ready to tell her he’d talk to her in a few minutes when he was home. She rarely lived at her own apartment these days. Not that she’d conceded to a physical relationship with him. But he could see the opportunity was going to be there—soon.

“You have to come home. Now,” she said.

“What’s going on?”

“She swallowed the whole bottle of sleeping pills, plus who knows how much of what else. There are bottles all over the place. God, Oso, how many drugs was she taking?”

“Did you call 911?”

“Of course, I’m not stupid.”

“At this point, I’m so far away, I’ll have to meet you at the hospital. Keep me posted.”

Unfortunately, he got stuck in an accident-induced traffic jam on the I40 and before he arrived at Lovelace ER, his phone rang again.

“She’s dead, just come home,” Bernadette said. “The police want to talk to you.”

“Oh.” That was all he could manage.

“Oso, did you hear me?”

“Yes, I heard you. I don’t know what else to say, except thank God Adam’s at a friend’s house.”

“It’s possible if somebody were there, she might still be alive. She needed to be around people, talking constantly. We failed her.”

“Where was Samson?”

“I have no idea. He wasn’t here, though. I mean, he’s here now. The police are talking to him. They find the whole situation at this house peculiar. As they should.”

Oso grunted and hung up on her. Somewhere inside him, that small boy of twelve told him he was a worthless piece of shit. He was defective. He had to be defective. Normal human beings didn’t conduct experiments on hapless old women. Normal humans didn’t burn down people’s houses. Normal humans rescued others.

When he arrived, he took a deep breath, composed himself, and then entered what had once been his peaceful abode. Two officers instantly accosted him and assailed him with questions about Agnes, Tomi Corp, and the strange AI with enormous ears he had living with him. All of this information had been in the media: local, national, and international. The whole world knew Tomi Corp was in the on-going process of producing breathing biological androids. Likewise, Agnes’ story had, perhaps, become and even tastier morsel for journalists. Everybody knew about Tomi Corp’s advancements, except, apparently, these detectives.

Finally, they appeared to be satisfied—for the moment, pending the coroner’s investigation.

“I need to get out of here. I need to get a drink,” he told Bernadette.

“A drink? Right now? I don’t think that would be such a good idea.”

“What would you recommend? A therapy session?” his voice sounded nasty, even to himself.

“Yes, as a matter of fact. I’d suggest you need all the love and support you can get.”

“Right, who am I going to get that from? You despise me.” He stared directly into her big brown eyes, which were at this point puffy and red from crying, until she looked away. “Just say it. You despise me. No, don’t bother. I’ll take the drink instead.”

She shook her head. “And I was going to invite you and Samson to stay at my house tonight. After all the years I’ve put up with your shit. All the years I’ve been there for you. No, I won’t bother. But here, take this.” She slipped him a folded piece of paper. “She left a note. It’s addressed to you. The police probably want to see it, but I wanted you to have it first.”

“A suicide note? You can’t hide that from the cops, Berna. This is not like the last time, when we were kids in Socorro.”

“Just read it, okay? And then give it to the cops if you want.”

He unfolded the paper and read the note. It wasn’t long:

I’m sorry, Mr. Beñat. You’re a great man. This isn’t your fault. You were right when you said you could help me imagine the future. The problem is I don’t like the future I’ve imagined. I want to be with God instead. And my mama and papa. My real papa. Please forgive me, Agnes Walters.

Stephanie blew her nose on a napkin. Her granddad was right. The Agnes story was not pleasant. And yet, she seemed to remember a news article discussing the Tomi Corp scandal that had effectively stalled research in the area of human regrowth potential, whether it was of limbs or brain.

“Don’t worry,” he told her. “That’s not the end of the story.”

“It’s not? Oh, because you married Grandma Berna, right?”

“That, too. There’s a final segment to the Agnes saga, but it will have to wait for another time.”

“Why were you so mean to Grandma?”

“Why was I mean to Grandma? It’s become easier for me to admit now that I was afraid she would hurt me again.”

“You were afraid of being vulnerable?”

“Yes, that’s an accurate assessment.”

“I’m glad you got over it or, you know, I might not be here.”

“At least you’re honest about what you consider important. Let it be a lesson to you.”

“What kind of lesson? Of my own selfishness?”

“No,” he snorted out a laugh. “Of the importance of producing a line of descendants. Children, grandchildren. Great grandchildren.”


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