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Conversion Ratio

The following short story was written by ReTech and edited for this venue.

Bright neon Wheel of Fortune machine in a casino. Photo by La super Lili.

Photo by La super Lili.

Swen saw the glow from his forearm underneath his shirt. He’d muted his phone, so now someone was pinging him. It was almost an even bet: either his boss or Sully. After a long week it felt nice to be offline, even if it was only for a few ticks.

“Should’ve muted ’em both,” Swen thought as he slid his sleeve up. The loop was swinging underneath the south pass of the Rockies so the cabin dimmed for a moment as the lighting adjusted. His dermdisplay lit up his face as he read: WTF? Need to talk ASAP. You don’t just get recoded and go offline like that. Lemme know where you are. Ping back dammit. (-.-) Sul

Sully might be genuinely worried or he might think that he’d be on the hook. After all, Sully was the one who took him to the clinic, so maybe he was feeling nervous. Swen thought, “I’ll let him sweat till I get to the strip. It’s only twenty more minutes.” He smiled and muted his arm in the same motion as slipping his sleeve back down. The flesh no longer glowed.


Fourteen days ago Swen’s hours had been increased at work. He was given no say in the matter. He was on mandatory rotations for the next three years. Swen had gotten shafted with the most depressing job he could imagine: death-sitter. More accurately, or more officially, “Hospice End-of-Life Observer”. People were too busy to give a shit about a dying family member and headchats just weren’t the same as holding a hand.

Since 2031, WellSys had mandated death-sitters as part of their Grace in Dying initiative. Marketing had originally called it Dignity in Life and Death Options. Apparently not a single person working on the multimillion-coin campaign had abbreviated that. Exactly two hours after the campaign hit the feeds, DILDO was pulled and rebranded as the GD hospice plan. The lesser of two evils.


Thirteen days ago Swen held the hand of a 147-year-old woman who did not receive one call, one text, a single feed mention, nor have anyone claim her things after she died. This was not the sad part to Swen. Millions died like that every year. What made him maudlin was that he’d end up in a bed the same way, in a hundred or so years. The thought of some young forty-year-old sitting with him as he died, just because the kid had to, was repulsive enough.

But the thought of an adventureless life nauseated Swen.


Twelve days ago, he asked Sully if he still had friends that recoded. Swen didn’t try to get Sully drunk first. He didn’t do it over dinner or in some coy fashion, just-so-happening to mention the topic in conversation. Instead Swen walked into Sully’s apartment, smiled, said hello, kissed him lightly, and asked matter-of-factly: “Can you get me in touch with a recoder? I’m tired of being on basic and I want to make enough money so I’m not stuck anymore.”

Sully paused mid-breath for a moment. A slice of black hair slid down over his left eye. He didn’t bother to push it back. He didn’t even bother to breath until his brain reminded him to. Then, slowly, he sputtered: “Is this legal money or illegal?”

Swen’s smile broadened. “It’s legal if you win it.”

Read more

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Health, Happiness, 8asdf6a7f57

Photo taken in Oakland, California.

Photo taken in Oakland, California.

I was nervous in all the cliché ways — sweaty palms, rubbing them on my thighs, slightly flushed and slightly sweaty. Everyone said the procedure wouldn’t hurt. But I didn’t know of any person who had gotten it reversed. So this was permanent. It wouldn’t help to dream of regaining ownership.

The recruiter gave me a kind glance over her desk. “Are you ready, dear?” She seemed configured to look grandmotherly, complete with the faint cookie smell. I felt a little suspicious, wondering if she was a bioengineered multi-stack human, placed here to comfort me into signing myself over. Or maybe her personality was just a happy coincidence for the corporation.

I needed the money. That’s how these things always happen. People used to join the United States Army because the education and income were worth risking your life. I heard about that from old Boomers on street corners. When I was a kid, they still hung around.

I never liked their greyness, the frozen-in-time feel of them. Boomers rocked back and forth on their haunches, shooting the shit with each other, and you couldn’t help but listen while waiting for the crosswalk. My parents’ parents, the generation birthed by the “Greatest Generation”; the generation that caused all of this anyway. Fuck ’em.

The recruiter pushed a tablet and stylus toward me. She nodded with a smile, just like a benevolent automaton would. I swiped through the forms slowly, trying to read everything but feeling my eyes glance off the denser patches of legalese. What could they say in these documents that would deter me, anyway?

I needed the money.

The press called them “oblivion jobs” — liberal columnists thought they were evil and conservative columnists called them an honest day’s work. Snapchat blew up with the debates for a while. Then other liberals jumped in and pointed out that this new solution was better than fully conscious drudgery.

Besides, the second faction of leftists argued, it was condescending to confiscate options from the poor. Let them choose. We chose, in droves, because it paid decently. Finally, something that paid decently! I was a holdout, actually. Paranoia and an irregular news habit kept me away from the recruiting offices until almost everyone else I knew had signed up.

The value proposition was straightforward: Sell your time and labor, like any job. But you don’t have to be awake while it’s happening. Rent out your body and accept long stretches of blankness. Would you rather be aware of the monotonous physical labor — hollowing out arcology units, adjusting every terminal for the dirt it was lodged in? Or would you rather wake up ten hours later, never having processed how you spent the time?

The commercials said it would be like going straight from breakfast to watching TV with a beer in hand. And you’d stay in shape, hooray!

The hardware-wetware combo behind this was complex and poorly understood, controversial among engineers as well as pundits. Roboticists were exasperated at first, not used to being second best, but eventually they resigned themselves to the new status quo. Machines were physically more capable, but they couldn’t match the sensory intuition of oblivion workers.

Everyone who told me the procedure wouldn’t hurt was right. And soon my employment situation felt familiar, of course. It was only strange for a couple of weeks to “wake up” with an aching back, nearly ready to go back to bed again.

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Whence Came the Intruder?

This dispatch is a followup to “Unsolved Appearance of a Virus”. You don’t need to read the first installment to understand or enjoy this one.

“Flora had done the original forensic trace of Sam’s last actions and cried furiously when she couldn’t find enough information to explain anything.”

Flora missed Sam. They were never involved romantically, but she was always relieved to spend time with him. He did silly things like learn new typing schemes while they were supposed to be working, and then get yelled at because it slowed down his refactoring project and raised his bug ratio. Now it didn’t matter. The “only use Dvorak when you’re on the clock” rule was obsolete.

Flora was what you call “high strung” — she didn’t tolerate other humans particularly well. Management had special mood supplements just for her because everyone else’s bog-standard doses made her too jittery to work. She would sit in her room playing with old neural networks that they’d discarded more than a year ago, fine-tuning them for no particular purpose that she could name. That habit almost got her fired, in fact, but the second-level supervisor stepped in and suggested trying a different supplement combo first.

Management made their thoughts about “tetchy geniuses” known, but Flora stayed on, and her ROI as an employee was sufficient.

When Sam’s body was found, no one told Flora for several hours. She was plugged into her analytics trance, and the second-level supervisor insisted that they shouldn’t interrupt her. When Flora reemerged, everyone was gathered in the kitchen, looking at their shoes. She walked in, tugging off her rumpled sweatshirt, and stopped short when she saw their faces. “What’s going on?”

“Sam is dead. Greg found him. He was… sort of wedged into the H6 stack.”

“You didn’t need to tell her that,” Melanie hissed.

The eng lead took a step forward, raising his hand like he might touch Flora’s shoulder. “It’s so awful… I’m sorry. I know you were close.”

Without saying anything, Flora turned around and walked back up the stairs to her room. She flinched when she passed the H level, feeling the sudden pain of a cramp in her gut.

“When you maintain a computer the size of a house, the project consumes all of you. Really, the computer was a house. All the onsite engineers lived there, in the bowels of the machine. Its metal and silicon body occupied the tall column of emptiness that had been retrofitted into the building’s structure.”

Flora flipped open her laptop and powered it on. Five hours later, she was still reviewing logs, intermittently sobbing with frustration and punching the bed. She could tell that something was wrong — there was plenty of evidence at every level — but she couldn’t tell why. She felt like her brain was shaking inside her skull.

Unlike the rest of the team, Flora navigated the world by intuition. In some ways she was ill-suited to programming, even though she had the rules in her memory like anyone else. When exploring new territory, she pattern-matched without always being able to identify why the pattern was important. But she was so familiar with this system — so intimately connected to the way everything was supposed to be arranged — that the dissonance was obvious as soon as she examined layers beneath their usual dev tools.

And yet the source of the dissonance remained un-obvious. Flora reviewed the tampering that she’d found with the rest of the team, and then the second-level supervisor passed it up the chain. Management had invested too much to trash the project, and they weren’t pleased about rolling back to the version before any of this started.

“The machine was not sentient. No one ever thought that — Silicon Valley had given up on true artificial intelligence decades ago. Rather, the provocation uploaded through Sam’s brainlink was sabotage. Someone had been monkeying around with the firmware, and then the layer on top of that, and then even the UI. It was silly to mess with the interface — who cared about that part, right? This was an enterprise API endeavor, not a goddam web app.”

After a few months, they did end up letting Flora go. She couldn’t stop obsessing about what had happened to Sam, and management suggested to the supervisor that this was suspicious. He was reprimanded gently for Flora’s remiss performance. His file was tagged with a note that promotion should be delayed.

After Flora was fired, the project lost momentum and started to drift off of management’s radar. The sales staff wasn’t getting good results from this prospect, so the budget was slashed. The second-level supervisor was transferred to headquarters. After another year, the project was officially shut down and the devs dispersed.

The company still owned the building and the massive machine it contained, but they used that infrastructure to remotely process other work. Aside from the maintenance crew that swapped out components every couple of weeks, the place was left alone.

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Unsolved Appearance of a Virus

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was mainly “database”. Okay, fine, “backup” came into play quite soon, but “database” was key from the start.

After the beginning, there were a lot of other words, but you wouldn’t understand them. Those words were transmitted to the computer in a language that you’re not familiar with, at least not yet. The meaning was understandable to the machine even though most of its administrators had forgotten its subtleties. They didn’t care, since the behemoth did what it was supposed to.

The admin team — five engineers and ten remote devs who supported them — was bound together by stress. Crunch time and emergency restorations smoothed over their differences (while simultaneously magnifying other differences). When you maintain a computer the size of a house, the project consumes all of you. Really, the computer was a house. All the onsite engineers lived there, in the bowels of the machine. Its metal and silicon body occupied the tall column of emptiness that had been retrofitted into the building’s structure.

Sam used to enjoy repeating that cliche: “The bowels of the machine!” It was a joke until he committed suicide. His corpse became part of the computer’s intestinal ecosystem. (No, no, management ordered that it be removed.)

The machine was not sentient. No one ever thought that — Silicon Valley had given up on true artificial intelligence decades ago. Rather, the provocation uploaded through Sam’s brainlink was sabotage. Someone had been monkeying around with the firmware, and then the layer on top of that, and then even the UI. It was silly to mess with the interface — who cared about that part, right? This was an enterprise API endeavor, not a goddam web app.

Of course there were UI designers, and they were pissed off, but they didn’t live with the machine and their concerns were not particularly compelling. Frank and his underlings complained intermittently about clients’ reactions to broken buttons and such, but none of the database folks worried. Frontend could sort it out. (And they did, though it was no small effort.)

The database team did worry about what had happened to Sam. In the kitchen, making tea, Flora said to Gene and Melanie, “The malware had to come from the inside, right? One of us. It could be you two! I don’t fucking know!” She was holding a mug of tea and biting her lip and staring at her fingers as they clenched around the ceramic handle. Flora had done the original forensic trace of Sam’s last actions and cried furiously when she couldn’t find enough information to explain anything.

Of course, despite Flora’s outburst, the culprit was not Gene or Melanie. And it wasn’t the computer either — as I said, this machine wasn’t sentient.


Followup dispatch here: “Whence Came the Intruder?”

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Anti-Nausea Luxury Engineering

Photo by JD Hancock.

Photo by JD Hancock.

A human is a complex and finicky device. You can’t just buy one and let it be. They need daily care and maintenance. A responsible owner also has to keep an eye out for patches — security updates and plugins for boosted functionality are available frequently. It’s important to stay current! Listen, I’m not trying to discourage you. Just consider your level of commitment before making a purchase. These are very special gadgets.

You’re visiting us for the first time today, right? We encourage first-time companion buyers to start with a basic model. Don’t worry, you can always trade it in for credit when you’re ready to upgrade to one of the high-spec humans! Get your sea legs, so to speak. No, really, we’ve engineered nausea out of the latest genomic algorithm. Many of our clients take their humans sailing. We’re even considering a communal cruise! Let me know if you’re acquainted with any good yacht brokers.

My apologies, sir, I’m getting off-topic. Tell me what features you’re looking for.

Ahh, that’s a common request. Yes, we have a variety of decorative options. But we can’t replicate your dead wife! Ha! Strictly joking, of course. I’ve been skimming a history module about proto-human marriage rituals. Norms were very much changing before we came along and upended their world. Poor little guys.

Do you want to tour the showroom? We’ve got some real beauties in the shop right now! Don’t take what I said about starting with a basic model too seriously — as long as you’re willing to put in the time… It’s very rewarding! I can show you a few testimonials from our other clients. They’re very pleased with their humans.

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Cricket Compliance: Producing Food without the Humans Who Eat It

Photo by _paVan_.

Photo by _paVan_.

Lacy was bored. She was proud to work in food production — Mama’s reaction made the drudgery feel worth it when Lacy got home — but the low buzz of the drone and the sameness of the landscape lulled her toward sleep. She was sure that some of her colleagues gave up and drowsed. Lacy wasn’t sure yet how she felt about the group. It was a mixed bag — of races, genders, and hygiene standards — but at least a couple of them seemed nice. Lacy didn’t mind the diversity, per se, but she was uncomfortable around strangers and their strange habits. On the first day another girl had said, “You’ll be broken in quick,” but the routine still felt unfamiliar.

Lacy glanced out the drone’s windshield at the cricket fields in front on her. The creatures teemed on the ground, bouncing and burrowing and fucking and killing each other and feeding voraciously on their synthetic pasture. She looked back over her shoulder to check that the pheromone broadcast was working. A swarm of late-stage adult crickets rolled forward in the wake of the drone.

Lacy gripped her knees and swallowed nausea. She hated the insects. The protein was vital, of course. Mama wouldn’t have brought them to the city otherwise. Accessing the resource density of the metropolis changed their survival baseline. Lacy had gained fifteen pounds in a couple of months. Her little sister’s teeth were sound in her gums, and she could run so far on the game tread. Sometimes when Lacy got home from work, she loaded up Cath’s saved worlds, wandering through fairylands that were like hyper-saturated versions of the home she remembered as a little kid.

They had lived by a river.

Crickets didn’t need rivers. They just needed space, sprinklers, and miscellaneous food stuffs hauled in from other fields where other workers got bored in the drones. Or did anyone watch those farms? Lacy wasn’t stupid. She knew that this job was provisional — it would only last until the FDA regulation changed in a matter of months. Lacy was a Compliance Technician, according to her contract. When her supervisor interviewed Lacy for the position, he explained that a remote observer system was being put in place. He went over the automated footage analysis (assigned to a certified third party) that would ensure production was up to code. Then he sighed and admitted that he didn’t know where the company was going to move him after there weren’t any workers to interview, train, fire, interview, train, and fire again.

Lacy’s drone beeped softly and the computer’s androgynous voice intoned, “We are approaching the docking station. Initiate the checklist process.” Lacy leaned forward in her seat and started reviewing the figures on the dashboard screen. Number of crickets. Estimated protein values — both nutritional and market. Toxicity and contamination. The numbers always hit their targets.

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Go Ahead & Change Bodies; Just Remember To Take Your Soma

The following story was written by Reddit user ehwut in /r/blastfromthefuture, and is being distributed here with permission. Lightly edited for this venue. You may notice that the style slips in and out of newsiness — I must chasten you to remember that the journalistic habits of 2064 will differ from our own.


Pamela Greensbury is a member of a human group once thought extinct: a stay-at-home mother. Whenever her friends brag about their accomplishments since the introduction of Kindercryo chambers, Pam feels horrified. “I keep thinking, what happened to a normal childhood? Watching cartoons, playing in the yard, going to school? Today, kids learn everything in their dreams. They miss out on so much.”

Pam’s objections echo the headlines we were accustomed to back when decades-old VR academy brands were first becoming household names. Her peer group regards her as the economic equivalent of lifelong lunar pioneers wobbling and fumbling under full Earth gravity. Pam told me, “No one remembers the work that a full-time live household requires. For choosing a traditional path, I was nearly isolated, and became a kind of quaint thing kept around for decorum.” She says that she has few friends.

Photo of Navajo children playing from the US National Archives.

Photo from the US National Archives.

We seldom hear their stories, but mothers who share Pam’s frustration with our twenty-four-hour work culture are more commonplace than we may think. Last year, the SomaCo plant strikes across New Jersey were mostly led by women who professed to be frustrated with being denied their natural range of emotion. In Beijing there are rumors of armed revolt by couples who demand a right to private intimacy as a matter of humanist faith. Have we tread down a path our species was never meant to go?

Doctor Rowan Johnson of the Center for Economic Culture may have the answer. “We tend to forget the struggles of the past once they’re over with. At one time, women couldn’t vote, men were expected to solely shoulder the bloody cost of war, and parents had to maintain nearly endless reserves of energy and discipline to raise their children in person. Kids played, yes, but they also got hurt. There were vaccination objectors, cultural battles between the genders, epidemics of abuse in various forms, and totally out-of-control rates of anxiety disorders.”

“Now, we are free to pursue our goals. We contribute to society every waking moment, our children are safe, and yet women object to the loss of their motherhood role. Men feel displaced in a culture that no longer provides them with any gender-specific role expectations. We may not always see the resentment there, bubbling beneath the surface of our collective social consciousness, but it is very real. National mood regulation has failed to correct this. We might as well face the truth — the alternative seems to be a return to the old days of social calamity.”

Perhaps no longer. Doctor Johnson has worked for thirteen years to perfect what his research team calls the ultimate solution for personal freedom. Through a combination of applications of nanomolecular manufacturing, gene therapy, and a minimal number of implant procedures, volunteer subjects have been gifted with the ability to take total moment-to-moment control of their physical identities. A simple interface allows users to change their gender, fine-tune their physical attributes, and even (despite much controversy) change their race.

“This is the true end of the gender divide.” Doctor Johnson beamed as he showed off a set, which the FDA is expected to rubber-stamp this December. “We can revert to the old way of doing things without disadvantage, due to attributes previously beyond our control. If our work reaches the mainstream, then matters of old contention such as equality and social injustice can be mitigated with the touch of an icon. Does somebody think they’ll be discriminated against for their gender? Then they can take on the appearance of the opposite gender for work and go back to their natural looks when they get home. Is there evidence of disproportionate law enforcement? Then adopt the characteristics of the privileged race while in public. Never before has the individual had such power to overcome social obstacles.”

Photo of a protest marcher from the US National Archives.

Photo from the US National Archives.

But not everyone is convinced. Pamela Greensbury seems like a natural fit to advocate for this solution, which might draw people back into the physical world, but her testimony before the Senate Human Augmentation and Enhancement Committee proves otherwise. “We cannot sacrifice our individuality and diversity to save ourselves from ourselves. We will only adopt new problems! What happens to private relationships when the people you meet in public aren’t who you think they are? What will the psychological effects be when people feel forced to hide their race or gender in order to succeed? We’ve gone too far down a dangerous road already by sacrificing our nature to eliminate problems. Hiding from those problems is no solution either.”

Doctor Johnson was reached briefly for comment. He sighed and said, “Take away the root of these problems, and somebody complains. Give people the tools to mitigate discrimination with the freedom to live however they want at home, and somebody complains. Let people figure it all out for themselves, and somebody complains. Solve problems through regulations, and somebody complains. Anybody who doesn’t like our work doesn’t have to use it.”

It’s too soon to guess whether we’ll see a new kind of diversity or just continue as usual. The market will be the ultimate test. In the meantime, we may be wise to question those who stand in the way of progress. On her way out of the Senate chambers, Pamela Greensbury was arrested for mood regulation noncompliance. A spittle test administered by security at the entrance to the building proved that not only has she not taken her soma in recent months, but she has never been treated. CPS is investigating allegations of neglect, but has not commented on whether her children’s mood regulation needs were being fulfilled.


Once again, I encourage you to join the subreddit and upvote ehwut’s story. Thanks to fellow Redditor and sub moderator mofosyne for directing me to this piece.

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Infants For Sale At Walmart

The following article was written by mofosyne, Cornelius, and Zhenya Slabkovski for the subreddit /r/blastfromthefuture. Distributed here with permission. Edited and expanded for this venue.


Walmart recently launched their new line of Chubby Cherub infants. Early sales records show that Millennials prefer the Chubby Cherub brand to other leading names, such as Amazon’s FatCheeks. However, this cutting-edge product and its competitors are not without controversy.

Conservative groups have protested what one impassioned citizen deemed “the dehumanizing effect of selling infants on store shelves”. Most readers will be aware that this movement’s popularity has swelled since the July bombing of Walmart’s BioLife research facility. This week, a notorious incident in Washington DC led to the deployment of LRAD police drones, which successfully neutralized a riot attempt by au naturel protesters outside of the Supreme Court.

Photo by JE Theriot.

Photo by JE Theriot.

The conservative rally coincided with a special court session in which the justices ruled on legality of “shelf babies”, as Chubby Cherubs and FatCheeks are called on social media. The Supreme Court effectively gave the commercial infant retailers an all-clear sign, prompting the furor outside. Well-known conservative politicians attended the court session and later participated in the protest. In particular, Senator Zhenya was heard shouting, “My pastor will hear of this. Repent!” while being roughly escorted to the door by security personnel.

The industry alliance behind “shelf babies” points to the benefits of standardized human manufacturing. Babies grown in controlled environments have demonstrated greater intelligence and more rigorous health in preliminary studies conducted by the University of California at San Francisco. But the Child Design Group warns that the prevalence of off-the-shelf babies will endanger genetic diversity. A spokesperson recommended that aspiring parents use their specialty design service.


Now go join the sub and upvote the story!

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Octopi Adjacent

“Do you want the last one?”

“No, thank you,” she said, looking at the squirming creature with distaste. Saul shrugged, grabbed it by one of its back legs — the thing was programmed to have slow reactions, so although it twitched away from his hand instinctively, he caught it — and tossed the animal into his mouth. Crunch, chew, swallow. Saul coughed and said, “Yeow.”

Artwork by Marc-Anthony Macon.

Artwork by Marc-Anthony Macon.

“I wish they didn’t randomize the flavors,” she sighed. “That’s what happens when you prioritize art over commerce. I’m so tired of generative this, generative that. Can’t anything be planned anymore?”

“Stop being such a dish towel,” he told her.

“Do you mean wet blanket?”

The restaurant was crowded. The tables were full of pairs and parties, most giggling. Couples took turns pushing live hamster-like appetizers into each other’s mouths. Sweet, milky green tea sat at most of the diners’ elbows, half-drunk. The tureens and serving platters were occupied by living food of all sorts. The meals had strange limbs and their odd little bodies were smeared with sauce.

“Living food” was a misnomer, actually, but the imitation was convincing. Consequently, that’s what the newsvids said in their reviews: “living”. The kitchen was outfitted with processing vats and 3D printers. Edible computer chips were sourced from Indonesia and Appalachia. Poor places were convenient like that.

The waiter came by Saul’s table with a dessert menu. “The special tonight is marzipan unicorns,” he said brightly.

“Really?” she asked. “Not another one of these awful algorithm things?”

The waiter nodded sympathetically. “The cuisine does take some getting used to. Its… anatomy, I mean.” Then he smiled again: “Our chef is planning a night where you pick your own ingredients!”

“Good,” she said. “Because otherwise you’re going to go out of business. Randomizing flavors is a step too far. I’m okay with the wriggling — ”

“Sorry my sister is a bitch,” Saul told the waiter, who began to look uncomfortable. “I’ll take one of those unicorns. Is it enough for two people? She needs to eat something.”

She sighed. “This had better be good marzipan.”

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