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Short story Pressure
By Jeff Carlson
Thursday, June 12, 2008

Rated "PG13" by the Author.

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This is a near-future action thriller about a man who's surgically altered to survive in deep sea environments.

Originally published in Strange Horizons, "Pressure" has also been translated into Hebrew in the Israeli sci fi magazine Mercury. "Pressure" was also released as an audio story by Escape Pod.

Visit my site at for more info and other free fiction.






They said I wouldn't feel a thing, but my dreams were awful -- pain and tightness, smothering weight, none of which overcame my excitement.  I also dreamed of flying, dreamed that I dove right through the ground and smashed into a spectacular new universe, yet I caught only glimpses of brightness before my eyes ruptured and abrasive rock crammed through my mouth and sinus cavities. The mind persists in making sense of things, even when drugged and unconscious.  It remembers.
        Waking was the real nightmare.  I had no face, I weighed too little, and raw swelling in my throat choked my voice.
        The bite of a needle on one leg helped center me, even before the tranquilizer took hold.  I stopped thrashing and understood that I was submerged in a tank not much larger than myself.  I knew it was a horizontal rectangle, knew I was in its middle -- yet I had no eyes.  Could my hearing be acute enough to measure distance?  There wasn't time to sort through my senses.  The ponderous blood-weight of the tranquilizer could not subdue the breathing reflex and I dug at the water with every limb, moving up, up--
        A hard ceiling punched into the smooth metal protrusions of my face before I reached a surface.  There was no air.  But I could not drown.  I snorted water through the generous filter plate where my nose had been, then expelled a shocking pocket of liquid through the gills beneath my armpits.
        For a moment I did nothing more than breathe, feeling each exhalation against my elbows.  I almost touched my face, hesitated, then grew interested in my hands and brought them together.  The index fingers and thumbs felt no different but my other digits were thicker, longer, webbed.
        "Garcia?"  Stenstrom's voice was too loud in the VLF transceiver buried high in my cheekbone, distorted by the mumble of other people around him.  "How do you feel?"
        I thought I heard the vibrations of his enthusiastic tone directly as well, dulled by the water and walls of my tank.  They’d told me the recovery tank would be glass and I imagined his entire research team all around my naked body, bristling with recorders and palmtops, every face intent.
        Andrea had always giggled when we skinny-dipped together, watchful for neighbors but emboldened by each other's daring, in the early days when we lived at her parents' house in
San Diego. Before she got pregnant.  "Shark!" she'd whisper, and grab for me.  I can be a pensive son of a bitch and her teasing, her smiles, had always been what I needed most.
        The thought of her now helped me ignore my embarrassment.
        My scrotum had been tucked away, my penis shortened -- protective measures that Stenstrom's people swore were reversible, like all of the surgeries and implants.  I had that in writing and an eight figure insurance policy to back it, but there's not a man in the world who wants to be cut in that area, no matter the compensation.
        "Garcia?"  Stenstrom raised his volume painfully.
        Answering, I almost swallowed a mouthful of water.  Despite all of my training, subvocalizing into a throat mike was very different after the changes reinforcing my mouth and neck.  Eating would be a chore.
        I croaked, "Drop volume!"
        Stenstrom was apologetic.  "Is this better?"
        "Down, down.  Lots."
        "You're more sensitive than we expected, apparently.  Any other immediate difficulties?"
        I kicked through a tight somersault.  "Feel great!"


My pride was my savior, my source of endurance.
          I spent the longest five weeks of my life in that tank and in a deeper pool, healing, testing, practicing.  My feet and toes had been augmented much like my hands, my thighs shortened to maximize the available muscle.  I was damned quick.  Relearning construction techniques with my new fingers was sometimes frustrating, yet my progress was real and those periods of solitary labor became important to me.
          At the surface, in the shallows, doctors poked and prodded and put me through redundant tortures.  I had been warned that the study of my new body would be extensive and I did my best not to fear or hate them, but I'd never imagined such intense scrutiny.  During my years as a SEAL, I had been like a bug under a microscope, constantly evaluated and scored.  Here I was the microscope, my body the only lens through which they could measure their work.  Stenstrom tried to be my buddy, as he had always tried, joking and asking what I'd do with the money, yet his possessiveness was obvious.  "We'll be famous," he said. "We'll change the world."
          I wasn't a slave or a pet, exactly, but I was anxious to get started -- to get away from them.
          The project had almost selected someone else, a loudmouth much better at politicking than me, but the job would mostly be done alone and they must have thought he'd break without an audience.  I'm sure my Navy files indicated no problems of that nature.  I'm the private type, happiest diving or surfing with my laughing Andrea or teaching our boys to swim, feeling my heartbeat, finding the perfect ride, the perfect moment, away from other people and their squabbles and protest marches.  I've never understood the urge to merge, never wanted to add my opinions to the bubbling stew of e-media or buy five minutes of fame on iBio.  For me, a mob holds no power, no point.  Running in circles won't improve the economy, clean the environment, or affect the East Asian guerrilla wars in any way.  Hard work is the answer.  Honor.  Persistence.  A willingness to take risks.  The project offered all that and more.
          I had to relearn how to chew and swallow, a slow process but strangely more flavorful.  Stenstrom said that was only because of the premium foods they'd secured for me, but I had eaten well occasionally in the past and decided my improved palate must be a side effect of the surgeries that had
strengthened my jaw and lips.  Could taste buds be sensitized?
          Learning to see again was also a challenge.  From old research with dolphins and orcas, Stenstrom knew better than to surround me with smooth walls.  Many of those captives had gone insane over time.  That wasn't a concern here, but they didn't want my brain to establish its new neural patterns in wrong or confused ways.  Before activating my sonar receptors, which used ultra low frequencies far below my improved range of hearing, they put me in the deeper, irregularly shaped pool.
          It was beautiful.  I'd lost color but the textures were vivid, stark, each shape imposing.  My receptors could also see normally but had no better than 20/600 vision in that mode, which I'd use only for close-up work and to read instrumentation.
          I chose complete blindness when calling my family.  Rather than face a showphone, I let a computer read and type for me, my throat mike patched into a voder.  Site management had encouraged me to limit our exchanges to text only, which was easier to encrypt -- and who knew what seven- and four-year-old boys would make of some stiff-mouthed monster claiming to be their father?  Brent had only stopped referring to me as "step-dad" a short time ago, and Roberto was still young enough to forget me.  The portrait we'd had done before I left was not an image that I wanted to disturb, even though I had been caught in mid-blink and Andrea's smile looked forced, too large.
          "I'm doing great, hon, how are the boys?" I asked.
          Her response came in stuttering groups of syllables, all emotion masked by the machine: "I used part of the advance money to buy a DFender for our apartment."
          It almost seemed like she was having a different conversation.  "Why bother?" I asked.  "The house should be ready soon."  Smart alarms cost thousands of dollars -- just a speck of what I'd earn, but the money was supposed to last the rest of our lives.
          "We're still here in the meantime," she said.
          The boys gave me no chance to brood over the resentment that seemed so clear in her words.  Maybe I only imagined it.  "Are you in the ocean yet how far down can you go?" one of them babbled, without first identifying himself, and other said, "Greenpeace rated you a top ten on the widecast yesterday!"
          Brent and Roberto both took after their mother, rambunctious little monkeys, and they gave me the praise and enthusiasm I'd expected.  I hadn't realized that Brent could type so fast.  The voder spoke his questions much more smoothly than anything Andrea had sent.
          Somehow, technical sketches of my surgeries and gear had leaked onto the Net.  I even had fan clubs with names like and zMerman.  The boys hoped for an exclusive and I decided it was better to play along and celebrate my alienness.  I promised to bring them both mementos when I returned.  By then, security should have loosened enough for me to take home a few small bits of hardware, something for them to put on a shelf or carry in their pockets.
          When Andrea came back on, she was encouraging but brief. "Six hundred four to go," the voder said for her, but I didn't know how to answer.  I had lost track of the days left until my contract was up, knowing how long it would be.
          "Love you," I rasped, and the computer carried my inadequate words away.


          Mapping the ocean floor was the greatest thrill of my life. Most people probably would have considered it tedious, gliding through a quiet, monochromatic world, but then the only way to get a rise out of most people is to batter them with kaleidoscopes of music, breasts, and talking heads -- or to turn off the Net and TV.  The worst riots always occurred during the rotating brownouts.
          Oil and coal were fast becoming memories, and incredible advances in solar power had come to nothing, due to greenhouse clouds and the megatonnage of dirt thrown into the atmosphere by the Nine Days War.  With tens of thousands of people still sick from radiation poisoning, no politician would even mention new nuclear plants, and hydroelectric, biomass, and wind generators weren't enough to keep civilization chugging along without interruption.
          Aro Corp. had the answer.  For months now, crews had been scouting various locales with buoys and remote operated vehicles.  The tiny Japanese
island of Miyake-jima, dead south of Tokyo Bay, was deemed perfect for political as well as economic reasons.  Miyake-jima belonged to an underwater ridge that extended from the Japanese mainland directly into the Pacific current, and its steep southern slope offered powerful updrafts in addition to the normal ocean tides.  Aro Corp. planned to build a field of turbines as deep as five hundred feet, using cutting edge technologies like me.
          Normal divers max out at three hundred feet and can't remain there long in any case.  My surgeries eliminated the need for air tanks.  More importantly, a gel solution had been suffused through my bloodstream and organs to protect me from compression.
          In addition to performing final, hands-on site inspections, I was also conducting field tests of myself.  Before creating other "mods," Aro Corp. wanted to see if unforeseen problems would arise, physical, mental, or emotional.
          I was glad for the test period.  In three months I would become a teacher and a foreman, caged by responsibility. Meanwhile I explored natural altars of rock and coral, spread my arms to ride rip-currents, and chased quick clouds of fish.  One morning I caught a yellowtail.  Its buttery flavor was complemented well by sour kelp, and I began to forage instead of eating only from the tubes on my foodbelt -- secretly, truly making myself a part of this environment.  The work itself was more fun than difficult, placing beacons and running spot checks on our communications net.  The attenuation of radio waves is very high in salt water, even for the military band VLF signals that Aro Corp. had leased from the U.S. Navy.  They wanted to be sure they could always reach me, but there were dead areas within the construction zone. During the first twenty days, we added five more relays than they’d originally allowed for in the budget, three on the sea floor, plus two additional surface bouys whose anchoring tethers also functioned as antennae.  The grid was set.  The smaller boats that had helped me through this initial stage were replaced by a barge, capable of lowering heavier and larger gear.  The first steel cradles for the turbine mounts were coming down.

         For a country that had been almost entirely nuclear-powered for decades, Japan had a wretched safety record, averaging two and a half accidents per year.  Worse, loss of containment at eleven reactors during the war had done more damage than North Korean missiles.  They were desperate for a solution.
          Aro Corp. hoped to rev up a quad of turbines as soon as possible, not so much to offset costs but to prove to critics and nervous investors that the idea was fundamentally sound.  The complete project, involving hundreds of turbines, channelers, and land-based transformers, wouldn't be finished for four years -- and of course Aro Corp. hoped construction would continue for most of the century as they developed other locations around the globe.
          I worked nine- and ten-hour shifts, sometimes arguing with Stenstrom when he wanted me to come in.  I'm no hero.  I was angling for a bonus.
          My gung-ho attitude was also based on the fact that my camp on the lee side of Miyake held little appeal.  Sleep was always welcome, but any messages that the boys had sent tended to make me feel lonely, and then there was nothing to do but wait and brood, composing inarticulate letters to Andrea that I usually deleted.
          I was tired when my robot tug brought me to deeper water east of the island.  We'd completed inspection of the last sites a week early and the engineers wanted back-up options.
          As I kicked away from the tug, a familiar thrill shot through my exhaustion.  Beyond this shelf, the sea floor plunged away for miles.  This place was like another planet, strange and new, and I was the very first.
          The squid didn't hesitate.  Its only predators were much larger and shaped differently than me.  As I drifted into range, holding a small mapping computer to my face, the giant latched onto my left elbow and biceps with its two longer, grasping tentacles.  Just weeks before, I might have yelled.  But in this world there was nobody who could come to help.
          I tried to kick away.  No good.
          Its eight regular arms spread in a horrible, ash-yellow blossom.  When I switched to sonar the squid seemed even larger, backed by a spotty, rising cloud of silt.
          I dropped my computer, bumping one of the squid's closing arms.  It hesitated, grabbing the small device, but at the same time the pair of stronger tentacles around my left arm reflexively increased their grip.  My armor tore open.  So did the softer muscle beneath.  Blood squirted out in diffuse threads and I was lucky not to suffer a stroke, but too frantic to realize it at the time.

My fletchette gun was holstered on my left forearm, beneath the tentacles.  I groped for the knife strapped to my leg, but another of the squid's arms brushed my foot, then seized hold, and I yanked my free hand away before it was also trapped.
          "Garcia!  Garcia!"  Stenstrom's voice felt like part of the adrenaline-pulse throbbing through my head.
          I kicked not away from the squid but into it, winning slack from its tentacles, using this moment of freedom to twist sideways.  Its arms closed in.  My face and left arm led toward the monster's hard, gaping beak.  Then my free hand found the gun and squeezed off three-quarters of a magazine, tearing open the back of my left ring finger.

The squid nearly exploded.  Its shattered beak seemed to keep opening, spilling flecks of torn innards.  The convulsing tentacles yanked my shoulder from its socket and peeled away more armor and skin, but another burst of fletchettes freed me and I swam away.
          The current made restless ghosts of its gore and mine.
          Consciousness faded to a glimmer, but the thought of sharks kept me swimming--


I don't remember the ride or the hammerheads that came after me.  The shouting in my cheekbone, that much I recall.  Stenstrom’s panic was too intimate to forget.  Trying to reload the fletchette gun with one functional arm while clinging to the tug was a monumental task.  They say I did it twice, which must be why it seemed like I never finished.
          The sea is no place for the weak or wounded.


Andrea never wanted me to volunteer, not because of any danger or even because of what they'd do to me, but because it would take so long.  We’d argued before, like all couples, silly stuff like who was supposed to take out the garbage, and we'd had bitter discussions after she got pregnant.

          At the time I was just twenty-seven, after ten years in the strict, almost exclusively male world of Special Forces, and I had not proved myself excellent family material by butting heads with her son Brent.  But until I told her that I needed to leave, we had always found a compromise.  She let me name our baby after the father I'd never known -- and I agreed to be more lenient with Brent, let him choose his own friends and music and clothes.
          We'd never shouted before.  She'd never cried before.

          "We don't need this," she said, but we did.  If we wanted to give Roberto and Brent the education they'd need, if we ever expected to live someplace where sirens and knifings weren't regular affairs, a chance like this was too fat to pass up.
          The politicians said the recession had ended in '17, but that was news to us.  The SCUBA guide business I'd started after I got out of the Navy failed almost immediately.  I should have known better.  The tourist trade had been flat for years and my competition, already well-established, gobbled up what little income there was to be had.
          We weren't destitute.  Andrea subbed as a math teacher wherever she could, we both did spot work for the Park Service, and I made wages on the docks as a mechanic and welder.  But I missed the simple vacations we'd taken in the early days, surfing, kayaking.  To be reduced to a life of debt, coupons, and freebies was hardly a life at all.
          The real horror had been the resentment with which I'd begun to view my family, for needing so much I couldn't give.
          On the day before I left, Andrea argued that I'd undervalued my soul.  "Two years," she kept saying.  "Don't leave us alone for two years."
          "We'll talk every week," I promised.
          "Two years, Carlos.  The boys won't even recognize you."


          Stenstrom opted for a swimsuit when he visited, which was all that I was wearing.  To perform their repairs and to let me heal, the doctors had turned me into something of a surface creature again, enclosing my head in a large plastic sphere that piped in salt water, placing me on a table lined with gutters to collect my liquid exhalations.  Keeping my skin damp was more complicated.  The mist ducts tended to fog the room, so the doctors wore aprons and goggles and long yellow gloves. Stenstrom had a better grasp of psychology than that.
          "What can I do for you?" he asked, not bothering with how are you or hello.
          "Sorry, chief."
          "My fault.  We should have ordered you to quit for the day. It's not like we were running late."  His laugh was a goofy bird squawk that sounded fake the first time you heard it, but he was just a geek -- desk belly, pale, with his fingers constantly in his hair or at his nose.  "Seriously,” he said.  “Anything at all."
          "Someone to read to me.  Someone pretty."
          "She can be friendly, too, if you like."
          I would have thought he'd be too embarrassed.  I was surprised to find that I was myself.  Maybe I’d spent too much time alone out there.

My next thought was of my marriage vows, and guilt arrived late.  But my first reaction was the honest one.  I was basically a cripple here, and the idea of being manipulated did not excite me at all.  I'd much rather masturbate, caressed and tumbled by the sea, by myself with favorite memories of my wife.
          "Someone to read," I repeated.
          Stenstrom nodded.  "What do you like, oceanography and biology, right?"  Standing up, he patted the table rather than jarring me.  "I'll have someone come in."
          It was awfully cynical, but I couldn't help but think that he was improving at trying to make himself my friend.


I contacted Andrea then, days ahead of the schedule we'd set, despite an earlier decision not to worry her.  Stenstrom was right.  I needed friendly, female attention, and I didn't have to tell her that I'd been hurt.
          She wasn't home, though it was dinnertime.  Brent answered and said she was substituting at the community college.  It made me angry.  I didn't understand why she'd bother with such a  low-paying job, especially since she must be incredibly busy, settling into the new house, helping the boys adjust to new schools -- but of course Andrea enjoyed teaching, and maybe the fact that we were rich didn't seem real to her yet.
          Maybe it was good I'd missed her.  Our exchanges had not been going well and I might have said something stupid.  Maybe communicating over such a distance, through typed words alone, was impossible.
          The boys didn't think so.  During my recuperation, they peppered me with messages full of abbreviations and icons that my computer and I puzzled over.  They were obviously spending more time online than they had with me around, learning new languages and modes of thought.  I was pleased that they remained excited about my accomplishments, but Roberto seemed overly attached to a new interactive he'd discovered, and Brent confessed -- maybe bragged? -- that he had been caught in two stim sites.  I admonished them both to finish their schoolwork as soon as possible each day, put the keyboard away and get outside.  Go play in the mud, I said.
          Returning to the ocean was unspeakably good, but my days grew more complicated as I coordinated with surface traffic, massive barges that probed the quiet dark with fat, long, phallic drills, blundering through ancient beds of sediment, polluting vast stretches of water with their shrieking as they powered down into the detritus and carbonate.  New voices sprang out of my cheekbone, crowding my skull – and four new mods had come through surgery and would soon join me.
          This was ultimately what I'd signed on for, and I took close note of each shift's accomplishments, but the joy that it gave me was purely intellectual and I clocked out with the surface crews rather than working overtime.
          The best part of each day was making my way to and from my shelter, alone, letting the currents and whim dictate my course, always discovering new beauty, new peace. 
          I think I knew what was happening back home.


Most of Brent's chatter washed over me like a familiar, soothing tide: "Club VR opened a new place downtown and I got to virt Gladiator and I could have done it twice except Uncle Mark is a bracket colon equal sign."
          The computer had grown better at recognizing icons, but Brent used so many.  This one meant flathead, I guessed, or chicken neck or whatever.  What concerned me was his tone.  Brent had once directed this same mean jealousy at me.
          "Who is Uncle Mark?" I croaked, the elongated fingers of my hand tightening into a ball.

I hit the send button with a fist.


"What the hell's going on!" I shouted, six hours later when I finally got Andrea online.  "After all I'm doing for you..."
          Her response was immediate: "You did it for yourself."
          I stared at the shape of the computer as if it were another squid, my thoughts layered and conflicting.
          "For the fame," she continued.  "The adventure."
          "For the money, Andrea!  I'm doing it for the money!"
          "Would you have let them cut you up if they were going to turn you into a desk, Carlos?  You did it for the chance to finally be a fish."


Its prow into the wind and waves, the barge lowered two turbines on cables, one off of each side.  Just hoisting the house-sized cylinders from the deck and hitting the water had taken two slow, exacting hours.  The descent itself required five more.  During snags and rest breaks, I inspected the squat towers that would cradle the turbines, darting under and around their angled beams, even though we'd already completed our structural tests.
          But there was no escaping my thoughts.
          Leaving now -- quitting now -- would be crazy.  Reverse surgery and rehab would take almost a quarter of the time left in my contract, and I'd forfeit everything but the signing bonus.  We'd lose the home, our future, find ourselves back in the city, scrambling for wages....  And I would never work for Aro Corp. again in any capacity.  Even their competitors would have no reason to rely on me, a hard truth that always led me back to the same worry:
          Can I ever trust her again?
          The weather had been cooperating, but even nineteen-ton hunks of metal will act like sails in deep currents, and close to sundown we realized there had been a miscalculation.  Some pendulum swinging had been accounted for -- it was a drop of four hundred feet -- but instead of a near-simultaneous mounting, we had a double miss.
          Each elevator platform had jets which I could use for final adjustments, but they weren't powerful enough to muscle the turbines twenty meters against the current.
          "We're twenty east," I said.  "Let's elevate ten, bring 'em back up."
          The nearest turbine was a smooth sculpture caught in a web of cables that led upward as far as my sonar reached.  ROVs, remote operated vehicles, scooted about or hovered patiently nearby.  And when I switched briefly to my fuzzy, nearsighted normal vision, the busy sea became busier, shot through with the ROVs' beams of light.  All of this generated surprisingly little noise: the whirring of ROV props, the harp vibrations of the current against the cables.
          The first explosion sounded like God had slapped the surface, a bass thunder that reached me an instant after the VLF net surged with voices.
          "Was that the engine?"
          "Fire!  Fire!"
          "Number two crane's lost all exterior cables--"
          The last bit of information I personally witnessed as the turbine sagged in its web.  If it fell, it would roll into the cradle tower and ruin weeks of hard labor.
          I swam closer, thinking I might use the platform jets to keep it afloat or ease it to the bottom, but two ROVs tumbled into my path as their operators lost contact.  I kicked left.  One struck my scarred shoulder and numbed my arm.
          I had been assigned an emergency frequency to connect me directly to Stenstrom.  Would he be there?  The way the ROVs had shut down, the comm room might have been destroyed.  I said, "This is Garcia--"
          He was near panic.  "Can you stabilize number two?"
          "I'm on it.  What's happening?"
          "We're under attack, speedboats, they're widecasting some Animal Earth crap!"
          Three small cylinders lanced into the far range of my sonar, moving fast.  Smart torps.  They were beautiful in the way that sharks can be, sleek and purposeful, a hard swarm of warheads chased by their own turbulence.
          I probably wouldn't attract their attention, not being a power source or made of metal -- not much metal -- but the concussive force of a detonation anywhere nearby would kill me.
          I dug and kicked down, down--
          Tightness in my bad arm made my effort lopsided, slowing me.  The buzzing torps grew very loud.
          The rift was not deep compared to the plunging valley where I'd encountered the squid, but at its edge was a thick bulge of carbonate.  I ducked past, scraping my hip.
          That rock saved me by taking the brunt of the explosions, then nearly killed me as parts of it broke away.  I was stunned, slow to move.
          Animal Earth.  The rant-and-slants they'd posted during our efforts here had been based on a refusal to accept our stated purpose.  They were Greens.  They should have supported us, but frothed instead about the blatant destruction of ocean habitats....
          I stayed in the rift for two hours, watching, listening, afraid to broadcast on any channel in case there were more hunter-killers waiting to acquire targets.  The attack had stopped after five minutes but our radio communications remained incoherent.  Stenstrom tried miserably to raise me on the emergency link again and again.
          He tried the general frequencies, too, even sharecasting his public response to the attack.  One of the speedboats had been apprehended by Japanese military aircraft and suspects were in custody.  Given the armament involved and the coordination of the assault, Stenstrom suggested that the whole thing was a cover for our competitors in the nuclear or oil industries, and already there were conflicting denials and claims of solidarity from Animal Earth spokespeople.
          Finally I began my ascent, goaded by the constant dig of the voices in my cheekbone.  At one hundred feet I saw a man, a body, deformed by violence and twisting loosely in the current. We hesitated together in the dim, penetrating glow of the sun.
          Then I turned my back on him.
          Andrea and the boys were well provided for, and she obviously didn't need me.  Brent had never needed me, and Roberto... Roberto was young enough to forget and move on.  Let them think I was dead, lost to the tide.  The insurance payouts alone would be a fortune.
          Four miles proved to be the radio's range.
          I kept going into the beautiful dark and never let anyone intrude on my world again.












          Jeff Carlson is the author of the internationally acclaimed thrillers Plague Year and Plague War.  To date, his work has been translated into six languages.  Plague Year will also be released on CD by Recorded Books at the end of June 2008.  Visit his web site at for free fiction, contests, tour dates, and more.



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