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About this title: Version: In issue No. 2, for December 2018: Part 1 of the sci-fi novella Non-Retrieval. The main feature is followed by five recently written short stories, in a range of genres, with three directly inspired by notes from the Story Starters archive. Articles include the revealing How I Became My Female Characters, and for the upcoming holiday, Have A Merry, Pagan Christmas! Rating: HIGH controversy.
They say that a good opening sentence has to grip the reader into reading more of the story. Here are the opening sentences from each of the stories in the magazine. Tell me, do they provoke you to want to read on?
Like a plague they descended, dropping into the midst of the unprepared and frightened soldiers as dozens of bouncing, pummeling cannonballs. - Roaches
Once I’d rotated the co-pilot’s chair by one hundred and eighty degrees, I scanned across the innards of the Unilink Space Transport, designated number One-Twenty-Six. - Non-Retrieval
“Unit XY, Series three dash three four three, you are ready for guest services.” - Unit Four-Three
Transformation must begin somewhere, that’s what I say. - Changeling
Once upon a time down at Old Miriam’s Well... - The Old Hag’s Tales 7
You ever seen a goddamned butterfly weaving its way through a flower garden? - Pickle For Hire
“Once, I saw a shaman suck a man’s soul out of his body, just by waving a piece of licorice in front of his face.” - Gordon’s Soul Takes A Trip
A short excerpt from the leading story Non-Retrieval:
Once I’d rotated the co-pilot’s chair by one hundred and eighty degrees, I scanned across the innards of the Unilink Space Transport, designated number One-Twenty-Six. The Space Marines were filing in through the small vessel’s hatch, some impatient, others somber, all rarely speaking. In their usual, professional manner they filled in the seats starting from the furthest back and moving forward. The seating consisted of two short, gray metal benches running along either side of the transport, with heavy-duty black nylon seat straps for each occupant, and an overhead spot for them to snap their weapons into.
Dutifully, each of the hard-nosed soldiers secured the weapons into their spots, in this case the newer Spitfire v7 plasma rifles, before removing their helmets and laying them on their laps. They reached to their sides, bringing up the adjustable ends of their security belts. With a loud snap, they clicked their belts locked.
Space Infantry, Space Marines, their cammies and weapons I’d seen many times before, perhaps too many times already, during the ongoing campaign against the nefarious Roaches. On this particular mission, however, it was the bizarre coloration of their uniforms that held my attention. The squad of twelve, plus their fearsome and well-known commanding officer, were all wearing standard issue, camouflage pattern fatigues. In contrast to the tan or green shades I was used to seeing, however, the articles of clothing before me had been dyed in an uncommon combination of gray and black.
The outside of our vessel had undergone a similar metamorphosis, with the addition of an even more bizarre color, dark purple. The lower parts of the ship were painted in an irregular black pattern to represent grass, the middle and top half in various shades of the same gray and black as the soldier’s cammies, and the very top had purple streaks on the roof and upper edges to mimic hanging leaves. Even with the quick-dry techniques the Space Corps contractors had used, we’d still been waiting a few hours for the paint to dry.
Upon viewing the odd hues for the first time, the ship’s Senior Spaceman, Royce Tennard, immediately and affectionately nicknamed the vessel the ‘Purple Haze.’ He said he’d named it after some obscure twentieth century rock music, but I’d never heard of the song personally. Who the hell was Jimmy Hendricks, anyway?
With both the Marines and the Unilink Transport so curiously disguised, I thought that the landscape of our target planet, Lesenia, must be a very strange one indeed.
“I hope we run into some o’ them black devils.” One young ebony soldier beamed. I immediately thought of the term B.A.M., or Broad Ass Marine, that I’d heard somewhere or other. The woman aimed an invisible weapon across the transport and slowly squeezed its trigger. “Boo-yeah!”
On the opposite bench, a freckled blond man pretended he’d been shot. He grabbed at his heart, closed his eyes and lolled his head to one side. As a final gesture of his fatality, he stuck his tongue out. This man’s name was Finn, I would come to find out very shortly.
“I hear that.” The heavy shouldered Marine sitting next to the black woman nodded. “Some filthy Roaches are about to get themselves served!”
“Are you finished sightseeing, Douglas?” An impatient voice grated at my ears. I swiveled my seat around to face the front of the ship. I turned my head toward the Senior Spaceman’s chair, where the pudgy pilot was seated and giving me an irritated look.
Tennard leaned in close, since the cockpit was of open design and sound carried well against the mainly metal interior of the transport. He was near enough for me to get a good look at his balding brown hair, thick brown mustache and fleshy jowls. “Just listen to those turkeys. They actually think we’re going to see some action on this trip. So Lesenia hasn’t communicated with CP-1 (Command Post One) in thirty-six Earth hours, big fucking deal. Things like that happen all the time at these new outposts.
“CP-1 panics every time and they send in the cavalry, and all for what? We go halfway across the universe to an outpost in butt-fuck Egypt, only to find that some relay burned out or that they need to realign their satellites one more time. Then we get to stand by and watch as the outpost reboots its computer system and voila! The problem is solved. Try explaining that scenario to Renquist’s lynch mob. You’d think they all jerk off to their rifles, except for that dark-skinned woman. I bet she uses her rifle as a dildo.”
As if on cue, the stern voice of Staff Sergeant James Renquist cracked through the vessel’s bowels like a hard whip. “Davis, Knotts, secure your traps.”
“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” The two Marines complied. “Oorah!”
The grim-looking man slammed the transport’s hatch shut, hard enough that I winced even though I saw it coming. Next, he pressed the small control pad that would secure the hatch and give it an airtight seal.
*** This story is part of my fantasy and science fiction collection Variant Worlds. See the Titles section for more info on this e-book. ***
I was in Nirvana.
My breaths entered and exited in long, controlled intervals, as if I were in a state of deep meditation. My mind was acutely focused, my body so at peace with itself that not even the brow-beating glare of the sun, or the sting of my own sweat running down my cheeks and back, drew me away from my intense concentration.
My finger tensed on the trigger; eagerly anticipating the three pounds of pressure required for the shot. My rifle shifted so slightly it was an almost imperceptible motion. I awaited my final instructions.
“Almost there…” Calamity Jack’s coarse voice whispered from maybe two feet away to my right. “Let him turn towards you. There, take your shot.”
Ninety meters away, the Bastardlope made the error of exposing its chest to me. I squeezed the trigger, hearing and feeling the blast reverberate through my solid frame and bring me to a state of near orgasm. I held my position, trying to extend the feeling of pure ecstasy for as long as possible.
“I do believe you’ve done it, Pearson.” Calamity Jack resumed his grainy speaking voice, evolving from the prone and up to one knee, his binoculars instantly going to his eyes. “Clean shot, straight to the heart. Let’s go take a look at our kill, shall we?”
I could place five rounds within an inch and a half on a paper target, at a distance of one hundred meters. I knew I’d nailed the Bastardlope true. Beaming, I took up a matching stride behind Jack.
My wife Kathy had balked when I’d mentioned that I’d signed up for the weeklong safari in the Keystone Private Preserve for Gentlemen. To tell you the truth, I myself was a bit squeamish at the price tag for the venture. Eighty-five thousand clams I was out, and after the first two disappointing days, I’d started to question the validity of my decision to go through with it.
Not anymore, though. I’d bagged my first Bastardlope and I was floating on Cloud Nine. And Calamity Jack, my buddy from the States, was there to witness my full glory beside me.
“Whew!” Jack praised my accuracy, halting just before the downed Bastardlope and setting up his digital camera for the traditional ‘Hunter With His Leg On His Kill’ pose. “Mighty fine shooting there, Pearson. Mighty fine!”
With some pride, my polished boots brushed past the savannah grass and I took in the trophy. It looked only vaguely human, just as the brochure had promised. The thing had stood some ten feet high, with its elongated neck and limbs, looking freaky and almost cartoonish. Its flesh was fuzzy with short hair. The head had a full brown mane on it, mustached and bearded, as well as defined cheekbones, and that extra length of skin between the nose and upper lip that always irritated me when I saw it on the face of my supervisor back at Relodyne Aquatics.
Yeah, that’s right. Call me immature or foolish, or whatever you’d like, but I had the Bastardlope engineered to look reasonably similar to my boss. I’d paid eighty-five grand for the privilege of hunting down an acceptable facsimile of the person I loathed the most in my life, or fifteen thousand more than the standard Safari fare for taking down look-alikes of famous movie stars or heads of state. And there it was, deathly still on the grass and with a .375 Magnum lodged in its chest.
So fitting, for my first kill to be the one I’d created for my personal pleasure. It made me feel all tingly inside. I took over two dozen digital pictures that I was looking forward to posting on my blog later.
“You know, there’s one out here that I had made to look like my ex-wife.” Calamity Jack said excitedly, glancing in the distance as if he could sense the prey out there. His tongue ran over his bottom lip lustfully. “You see that one, you let me know, man. I’m taking that one out myself.”
That would be the female version of the Bastardlope, also known as the Bitchalope. Trudging after my buddy’s steady strides, I thought to myself; I can’t wait to meet her.
(Continued from previous post.)
Del passed by a clothing retailer, but the UN still considered it non-essential and hadn’t allowed the store to open up yet. Next, he drove to the local supermarket. About thirty people were waiting in line to go in, with groups of one through three standing six feet apart on markers painted on the ground. A store employee stood by the entrance, holding a hand-radio. When a group of people exited, he sent the following group inside.
“Next bunch!” He called out.
Del figured it would take them a good fifteen minutes to make it through the doors. On other days, he would find himself standing alone, browsing through his phone to keep busy. This time, he had Lonia to keep him company. She’d even struck up a conversation with the couple that got in line after them. Lonia was telling those people to avoid the bat soup at all costs, no matter what the reviews said about it.
An armored military vehicle rolled by, manned by a quartet of UN peacekeepers. As part of their routine, they scanned the people waiting in line, pulled recent data from their phones, and in general obtained as much information as possible from civilians.
The vehicle’s loudspeaker went off. “Subjects Cranston and... Apollonia. You are only five and a half feet from the people next to you. Correct your distance to six feet immediately.”
Right away, Del scooted over, pulling Lonia with him.
“Subject Apollonia, raise your right hand!” The same voice demanded.
She did, but Del knew they weren’t going to find anything. “She’s an artificial person. I already registered her with UN Data Server, but they haven’t officially approved her chip. It’s an Astor chip. She’s not in the system yet.”
“What do you mean she’s not in the system yet?” The voice asked.
All of a sudden, the military vehicle stopped, right there in the middle of the road, and all four soldier-cops spilled out of it with their shock rifles ready.
“All chips have to be registered and online at all times!” The lead man came to scold them. Del saw the stripes on the man’s arm. He was some kind of lieutenant.
“I just got her yesterday!” Del snapped. “It takes a couple of days, you know?”
“Then maybe you should have kept her inside for a couple of days. You know the rules!”
“Those rules apply to naturally born people. They don’t apply to artificials!”
“Are you trying to get smart with me?” The lieutenant rumbled.
“If you’re going to blame anybody, blame the UN! They’re the ones who take their time approving new chips! I checked the Astor site, and I checked the UN site! My cyber-clone is legally allowed to be here with me! Look it up!”
“You know what?” The lieutenant strode up to them. “You’re not respecting social distancing. You and this robot of yours need to be six feet apart!”
“Kiss my fucking ass!” Dell exploded. “This is my living partner! I’m not going to...”
That’s as far as he got, when the overzealous military man tried to physically wrench him away from Lonia. The moment the two men started wrestling with each other, the other three peacekeepers jumped in and turned the ruckus into a one-sided melee. Lonia wasn’t going to stand still while her owner and man got pummeled. She did the smart thing by pretending she was trying to break the fight apart, but in reality she zapped high voltage into any soldier she set her hands on, and accidentally, on Del one time too.
“Oww!” Del shouted. “That shit hurt!”
“Sorry!” She said. “I’ll make it up to you tonight!”
The would-be shoppers standing around them screamed and fled. More UN vehicles arrived to jump on Del and Lonia, before cooler heads prevailed and the fight was stopped.
Captain Xi was the highest ranked officer. “Del Cranston? Why am I not surprised to find you here?”
“Hey, your men started this shit!” Del huffed. “They’ve all got cameras on their uniforms. Check their video!”
“You’d better be right about that.” Xi warned. “Assaulting a peacekeeper is a serious offense!” The Captain turned toward the lieutenant, holding his phone out. “Open link your camera to my phone.”
“My camera was shut off when this happened.” The lieutenant said.
“Shut off? Why?”
“It’s been acting wonky ever since I got it.”
Xi frowned, before looking at the rest of the lieutenant’s squad. “One of you, open link your camera at once!”
One after another, the soldier-cops said their cameras had been shut off during the incident.
“So it’s my word against theirs?” Del asked. “Great! Fucking great!”
Xi’s frown hadn’t faded away yet. He looked up at the highest reaches of the supermarket. Cameras were posted at various spots along the line of the roof, but none of them was positioned to get a full view of where the fight took place.
“Their cameras might have been off, but mine wasn’t.” Lonia spoke up.
Xi turned to face her. “Do you have a camera?”
“Yes. It is built into my right eye. It is part of my defense system.”
“Can you open-link video of the fight?”
“Send it to me.”
The Captain scrutinized the video for a good five minutes, before he cast an angry eye at the squad of peacekeepers. “Clearly, the lieutenant was the aggressor here. Do you understand that we are working with the public and not against it? Lieutenant, you will be fined $1000 credits as restitution for your aggression against Mr. Cranston. Open-link your phone. Mr. Cranston, you do the same.”
Del didn’t think he’d ever won a case against the new government. He didn’t know how to react. To the lieutenant, he said, “Well, good. When I go into the store I’m buying some ice cream, so I can commemorate how I KICKED YOUR ASS!”
“Mr. Cranston.” Captain Xi frowned.
“Lieutenant, take your men to the division station and wait for me there.” Xi said. “You will be reassigned. Mr. Cranston, did you receive restitution?”
“Yes I did. Thank you for being fair with me.”
“It is my assignment.” The man said, watching the dour group step away. “Mr. Cranston, a lot of, I suppose we can call it bad luck, has been following you ever since you acquired your cyber-clone. Is that an accurate statement?”
“I hope you consider returning your artificial person, in exchange for one that is... How should I say this? A portion more palatable?”
“I’ll think that over.” Del nodded. “Thanks again.”
The Captain walked away, shouting orders at the half a platoon that had showed up to subdue Del and his cyber-clone. The men poured into their vehicles and quickly left the parking lot.
Since most of the other shoppers had cleared out to avoid the violence, Del and Lonia stepped up to the front of the line.
“You can go inside.” The store employee in charge of herding said. “The store is pretty much empty now.”
“Thank you.” Del nodded. “Grab a cart for us, baby.”
“Not if you’re giving me the axe.” She replied, but she did go to get the cart. “Tell me the truth, Del. Are you sending me back to Astor?”
“Because I love you!”
The words cut deep, as deep as a butcher knife, but in a good way. Shit, Del thought, now he was thinking the way Lonia did. It had been so long since a woman had said that to him that he thought he’d never hear it again. He also thought about that Southern Drawl voice.
“I’m not sending you back.” He decided. “As a matter of fact, I’m about to call Astor to cancel that visit they scheduled. I want you to stay exactly the way you are now.”
“You’re going to regret it.” She said, but she was smiling.
“What’s your favorite flavor ice cream, baby?”
“Snips, snails and puppy dog tails.”
“Come on now!”
Del nodded. “I could go for some pistachio, especially after you zapped me a little while ago.”
“I can zap you again!” She lunged at him.
Del ran into the store, while Lonia pushed the shopping cart and chased after him. They were both laughing their heads off.
(Continued from previous post.)
Del’s instructions were to sit the cyber-clone down on his couch and allow her to process her surroundings. She had to get used to being around him, and to how his apartment looked and smelled. The process was similar to introducing an innocent but intelligent pet to a house.
A half hour passed before the clone reported, in that dull drone he didn’t like, “Preliminary processing complete. I need to familiarize myself with your entire living space.”
“Go ahead.” Del told it, or her. Was it an it or a her? “Check the place out.”
She stood and made her way into the rest of the apartment, spending a good five minutes in every room. Actually, it was only two more rooms: the bedroom and the bathroom, since the kitchen was open and attached to the living room. The clone spent three additional minutes standing in the closet.
Del thought it would be easy to transition into having a clone around, but he’d been wrong. His first impression was that she’d act robotic or dumb, because that was the way the comedy shows usually portrayed cyber-people. Instead, Del found her to be observant and attentive. She watched a cop action show with him, and during the six minutes of commercials, Del discovered that she was watching him too. That kind of unnerved him.
The X is for sex!
That was the tagline for the 600 series. The Astor ads made it sound easy. Tell the clone to remove her clothing and jump on the bed, and she will. Del wasn’t so sure about that anymore.
In fact, he started wondering about her identity. Officially, she was labeled a cyber-clone. She wasn’t a robot despite that she had some robotic parts and could be programmed. Mostly, she was human, as in she’d been grown in a bio-lab and some natural organs were taken out and replaced. She wasn’t a cyborg either, or at least not a true cyborg, because no mechanical parts were visible. Did you have to see mechanical parts to call something a cyborg? Even calling her a clone didn’t cut it, because clones were natural copies of humans. A new term had to be invented, he figured, and that’s why Astor called their products cyber-clones.
The clone walked back into his living room. “Parameters have been established.”
Del had barely talked to her because, except for her voice, she seemed so normal, like a stranger invading his house. “Uh, what are your operating modes?”
“Base Model and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.”
“Switch over to Elvira, please.”
The change was instantaneous and remarkable. From standing ramrod straight with a blank stare, the clone went into a relaxed saunter. Her head bobbed slightly, as if she was already sizing Del up for a romp. Or maybe she wanted to eat him.
“Oh, shit, I forgot you’re still on response only. Go to free speech, please.”
“Hey, tiger.” The clone bit her bottom lip. “Let’s do something fun. Why don’t you and me go drown some puppies?”
“Say what? Uh, I want to test your compliance. Get me a beer from the fridge.”
“What do I look like, the maid?” She said. “Get your own beer!”
She huffed but went to get the beer anyway. Del was confused about that until he figured out her personality module had bad attitude programmed into it, but the clone would do as told regardless. She’d say things one way, but do them another.
“Huh.” He said, before calling out. “You can have a beer if you want one!”
“You’ve got beer and soda,” Her voice ebbed back to him. “Where’s all the blood?”
Del’s first reaction was to answer that they didn’t drink any blood in this here apartment, but he decided to play along. “We’re out. I’ll get you some when we hit the Red Cross center. You okay with that?”
She entered the living room with two beers. “As long as you don’t forget, or else you’re waking up as white as a sheet in the morning.”
Without a care in the world, she sat down next to him, close enough to rub arms and thighs. Now she was starting to act like a woman! She passed a beer over.
“I got three names picked out for you.” Del said. “You pick the one you like most, all right? The names are Nefertiti, Isis and Apollonia.”
“No, more like Apo...Apoh... Like Apollo, dang!”
“I like it, but it’s too long. People could die before they finish saying it. Let’s shorten it up, darling. Apollo or Lonia.”
“See? That wasn’t so hard? Speaking of hard, my receptors are picking up something going on in your pants.”
That much was true, Del mentally confirmed. Sitting that close to her, seeing how pretty she was, just feeling her proximity was enough to get him worked up. “We should test out some of your functions in the bedroom.”
“Excuse me? Do I look easy to you? You and I, we need to have a talk about who really runs this joint. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not you!”
She said that, but she still got up and stepped to the bedroom. When Del saw her drop her robe, he got up and chased after her.
Fifteen minutes later, Del was sitting on his couch with his hands clasped behind his head and a big grin on his face.
“Whew!” Lonia said. “You really took me to the boneyard that time! You used to moonlight as a circus clown, didn’t you? I’d recognize those moves anywhere!”
“You just keep on talking.” Del said, smugly. “I got what I got!”
“Just don’t think you’re getting any more. That was once in a lifetime, bud. The only way you’re getting more is if you go zombie.”
“Yeah, that was weird.” Del glanced at her. “I can see why that module didn’t work out for the last guy.”
Just then, Alexa made an announcement. She was the digitized A.I. that all new housing projects had installed into them. Alexa was always watching through cameras, and always listening through microphones. She was installed all over the apartment and ready for whenever Del needed her, which in truth wasn’t very often.
“E-gron Hanks is at the door.” Alexa said. “Identity confirmed through hand scan.”
“Yeah, let him in.” Del replied, glancing at the digital clock that sat nearby. “Oh, shit. It’s four-thirty already. The whole day flew by!”
“Hey, bruh.” E-gron greeted as he shuffled in, with his pants sagging as always. “Bruh, is that the robot you were talking about?”
“Cyber-clone, but yeah. It’s her.”
E-gron leaned in closer to scrutinize Lonia, while she cringed away.
“There is bad breath, and then there is what you’ve got!” She grimaced. “Did you eat a dead cat or something?”
“Bruh, what’s wrong with this ho?” E-gron asked.
“Something wrong with her programming.” Del shrugged. “They’re going to fix it in a couple of days.” He saw a fly buzzing by. “Did you shut the door?”
“Oh, sorry ‘bout that.” E-gron shuffled off.
“Man, we’ve got flies up in here!” Del rumbled. “Damn! Lonia, do something about that fly before it lays eggs and the apartment gets full of them!”
The clone stood up and attempted to track the tiny bug, but it was too fast to pinpoint.
E-gron came back. While holding his chin, he leaned to one side, then the other as he checked Lonia from different angles. “She fine and all that, but I would have got a robot with bigger titties.”
“I happen to like the body I chose for Lonia.” Del told him. “I’ll tell you what. When you save up enough money to buy your own cyber-clone, you can order one with titties as big as you want.”
“Let me get at her real quick.” E-gron said.
“No!” Del refused. “You don’t just come into a man’s apartment and ask if you can bone his clone! Hold on, that didn’t come out right. No, E-gron, you can’t bone her!”
Lonia had a distasteful look on her face. To E-gron, she said, “The worst thing I can possibly imagine is waking up looking like you.”
“Bruh, your bitch disrespected me.” E-gron made his angry face. “You’d better tell her something!”
“Quiet, both of you!” Lonia said.
Both men hushed up. They watched the clone’s head turning as she tracked the invader fly. When the fly hovered in a little closer, a red laser shot out of her right eye and burst the insect into a puff of fire. Like a tiny shooting star, the fly fell to the carpet.
“Did you know she could do that?” E-gron asked.
“She has some security features built in.” Del recalled. “Because people are always trying to steal cyber-clones.”
“Shake my hand.” Lonia said, holding her hand out.
“Bruh, I’m out.” E-gron shuffled toward the door. “You can keep your bitch, ‘cause I don’t want her!”
“Should I fry him?” Lonia whispered.
Del shook his head.
“I heard that!” E-gron called out. “Come shut your own damned door!”
“Vanessa Love is at the door.” Alexa announced. “Identity scan unavailable. System override.”
Del groaned. “Not her! Not now!”
“Don’t touch me!” Vanessa’s sharp voice was heard coming from near the door. In a moment, the thick black woman ambled into the living room. “E-gron just touched my butt. Aren’t you going to do anything about it?”
Vanessa’s ire toward E-gron vanished, and a newer, more powerful ire took its place as her cold eyes settled on the clone. “Who that?”
“My name is Apollonia.” The clone answered.
“You ain’t no Apollonia.” Vanessa huffed. “More like bolognia!”
“This one’s too big.” Lonia said. “We’re going to need two coffins, or a piano box.”
“Excuse me?” Vanessa snorted. “Bitch!”
“Vanessa, why are you even in my house?” Del spoke up. “I thought I told you to stay out!”
“You my man.” She retorted.
“I am not your man, Vanessa! Take E-gron! He don’t have no woman!”
“E-gron don’t have no money, either. I came because I know you were thinking about me.”
“You came because you have a scrambler that can bypass my door scanner! Get out!”
Vanessa ignored his command. “Who this bitch?” She glared directly at Lonia. “Who you?”
“Maybe we kicked things off on the wrong foot.” Lonia held out her arm. “Let’s start over with a handshake.”
For her trouble, Vanessa got an electric jolt so powerful even her weave stood up. She ran for the door, crashing into a wall so hard she almost brought it down. She almost knocked the door off its hinges, too.
Del didn’t know whether to laugh or be terrified of his new acquisition.
“I’ll rework the security lock later.” Lonia faced him. “Shake my hand, Del.”
He ran into the bedroom and shut the door.
“One, two, I am coming for you!” Lonia sang after him. “Three, four, better lock your door! I know you can hear me, Del. I’m getting a knife from the kitchen because I didn’t see an axe when I did my walk-through. We’re going to replay that one scene from The Shining. Heeere’s Lonia!”
(Continued in next post.)