TWA #10 – Short Story “Blue Swan” by Joseph Devon

rose1Gus sat across from the android at the kitchen table. The android was powered down, its forearm was resting on the table with a rectangular hatch popped open along the wrist exposing some wiring and a slot for a data card. The android’s face was handsome, and even powered down it looked perfectly human.

Gus was wearing a work shirt from BioElectronics Inc., his brown hair was matted down by the baseball cap that he also wore as part of his uniform that was now resting on the table. He was lost in thought, as he sketched idly on a schematic printout that was no longer of any use. Without thinking about it his pen had drawn a rose in dark markings.

The sound of footsteps coming down the hallway stirred Gus out of his daydreaming and as he finished off the stem on the rose he looked up.

“Mrs. Flenderson?” he asked. His voice was loud in the empty-feeling apartment.

“I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Flenderson called out as she made her way down the hallway. Outside the day was dying into darkness and as she walked into the kitchen she stopped to turn on more lights. She looked young for a BioElectronics Inc. customer, and her bobbed hair and leather top suggested that she was more cutting-edge than your average thirty-year-old.

“That was my mother,” Mrs. Flenderson said. “She’s nothing if not opinionated on this whole thing.”

Gus smiled. “Well I’m sure you’ve seen our ads. One of our larger selling points is the fact that with an android from BioElectronics Inc., you’ll never have to deal with a mother-in-law.” This wasn’t actually on any of their ads, but since Gus was Mrs. Flenderson’s Customer Service Representative, it was his job to ensure that she was at ease with her decision, as well as completely satisfied with her new product and life-partner. In Gus’s opinion a few jokes here and there to lighten the mood were a needed touch.

Mrs. Flenderson smiled at his words, although it seemed more for Gus’s sake than because she enjoyed the joke.

“Still,” Gus continued, noticing his joke hadn’t landed, “the older generation didn’t grow up with androids on every corner. They can be a little confused or put-off by how our generation handles things. Plus, well, I have a friend whose mother still sends him emails, if you can imagine that.” He gave a warm smile and this time Mrs. Flenderson smiled back.

Mrs. Flenderson took the chair in between Gus and the android. As Gus picked up his datapad and began typing on it, Mrs. Flenderson looked down at the flower he had drawn, admiring it.

“Have you settled on a name?” Gus asked, still typing.

“Archer,” she answered.

“Sounds good,” Gus said. He made some notations into his datapad, then removed a card from it. He brought the card around the table to where the android was sitting, slipped it into the slot that was exposed by the open hatch on the android’s forearm, then flipped the hatch shut. The skimulant began to seal itself and the crack where the hatch used to be disappeared into a seamless and perfect facsimile of skin.

“Archer is just loading up now, it’ll be a minute or so,” Gus said as he and Mrs. Flenderson sat in silence.

A nervous tension filled the room as they waited for the android to come online.

“You can call me Molly,” Mrs. Flenderson said.

Gus nodded.

There was some awkward shuffling and outside the light drew a few shades further into darkness.

“I lost my husband,” Molly said, needing to fill the silence. “It was…it was a drawn out illness.”

Gus held her with is eyes and listened; this could be as much a part of his job as the android programming, though part of him also enjoyed hearing Molly talk.

“We travelled a lot, his music was our life, country to country as he played this concert hall or that and he just…it wouldn’t…” Molly stumbled and grew confused by her own words. “I’m not looking to replace him,” she said suddenly.

“Nothing ever could,” Gus answered. The honesty in his voice helped Molly relax.

“But, after so much time in this apartment without him…and so much of my life tied up with him…I just need someone to help me dive back into the world.”

Gus smiled at her as she explained herself, and their eyes met and for a moment it seemed like the apartment was pushing lightness out into the night instead of letting darkness encroach into the kitchen.

Molly glanced down at the table nervously and her eyes caught the drawing of a rose. She drew it over to her. “This is cute,” she said.

“Ah,” Gus said, waving away the compliment. “Just some doodling on scratch paper. Oh hey, here we are.”

Archer opened his eyes. He looked from Gus, to Molly, to Gus. “Hello,” he said, again glancing back and forth between the two of them.

“Archer,” Gus said, “I would like you to meet your new companion, Mrs. Flenderson.”

“I am very pleased to meet you,” Archer said, taking her hand delicately. “I know so much about you already, I am sure that we will be perfect life-partners.”

Mrs. Flenderson blushed slightly and had a hard time meeting the handsome android’s blissful gaze.

“Well,” Gus said. “We’ve got quite a bit of work ahead of us what with tutorials and tweaking, so we should probably get cracking.”

 

—–

 

A couple of hours later, Gus and Molly were sitting at the kitchen table again. Gus was busy typing some final tweaks into his datapad. Archer sat at the table as well, slightly slumped and in the off position. Gus finished up, popped the card out of his datapad, and slipped into Archer’s forearm. The skimulant sealed up and after some fidgety silence, Archer came back to life. His chest rose, as if he was taking in a deep breath, and his head perked up. He looked around, much like the first time he had woken up, but this time he barely glanced at Gus and, instead, cast adoring eyes on Mrs. Flenderson.

“Molly,” he said, “the corrections and added instructions you have given me make me certain that I will be the absolute perfect life-partner for you. I have learned so much about your preferences and I look forward to learning even more.”

“Which,” Gus added, “you will be able to do simply by interacting with Archer here. I shouldn’t have to do too much work directly on his data card anymore. He can learn through conversation and interaction, and with the head start we’ve given him, that should all go much smoother.”

Gus stood and began packing up his datapad and folders into his briefcase. He looked down at Molly. Archer was holding her hand and she seemed happy with this gesture. Gus felt that they were off to a good enough start. There were multiple visits scheduled already for further adjustments to Archer, nobody built their android husband or wife in a single evening, but this had been a smooth introduction. He said his goodbyes to the happy couple and left them as they started to make small talk at the kitchen table.

“Goodness,” Archer said after a few minutes. “It is 8:32 in the evening. You must be hungry for dinner. I will begin to prepare it.”

“Oh, I’d love to help,” Molly said.

Archer paused for the briefest of seconds, then replied, “Yes. You would love that.” He rose and smiled at Molly and then walked towards the refrigerator.

Molly rose and was about to follow, but she noticed the drawing of the rose still sitting on the table and, barely thinking, she picked it up and brought it with her. She plucked a magnet off the fridge and pinned the drawing up. With a quick smile at it, she then turned to the counter where Archer was laying out things to prep for dinner.

Archer turned to the picture on the refrigerator, and his eyebrows frowned as he pondered it. “Why did you hang that up?” he asked.

Molly shrugged and began to peel a carrot into the sink. “I don’t know,” she said, glancing over her shoulder at it. “I just liked it.”

“It is made with a common pen on a piece of garbage,” Archer replied.

“I suppose,” Molly said. “But I think it looks nice.”

Archer stared at the drawing, frozen in calculations for a few seconds, a long time for his processor. “You like it,” he finally announced, “because it appeared on the day we met.” He turned and gave Molly a smile for having solved this puzzle.

Molly laughed, “I’m not sure that’s right, I think it’s just a nice drawing. But it is a nice souvenir, so we can look at it that way as well.”

Archer only turned back to stare at the drawing.

 

—–

 

Mrs. Flenderson was rolling her eyes in frustration at Archer when the doorbell rang. Her face gave a noticeable glimmer of thanks at the sound and Archer’s eyes followed her as she walked into the hall.

“Hello,” she said to Gus as she opened the door.

“Heard you’re having some problems,” Gus said as Molly let him into the apartment.

“Well I don’t want to be a pest,” Molly said. “It’s just that Archer has been acting strangely and I know we have a visit scheduled in a few days but…” she trailed off and seemed unsure of how to continue.

“It’s perfectly normal for a client to call in their service representative a few times in the first couple of weeks, Mrs. Flenderson. That’s why we require the routine visits; most people aren’t in the habit of calling maintenance to deal with their spouse after all.” Gus tried to laugh at this little joke, but he noticed that Molly was only reacting with confusion and annoyance. He coughed and covered up his laugh and became embarrassed.

A brief wave of pity overcame Molly as Gus squirmed. She relaxed and, with another more good-natured eye roll, brought Gus to where Archer was sitting at the kitchen table.

“Hi there, Archer,” Gus said.

“Hello, Gus,” Archer responded.

“Now,” Gus turned to Molly, “can you give some more details as to the problem?”

“Well,” Mrs. Flenderson said, “I can’t quite explain what it is. He’s just being…” she trialed off, anxious about discussing Archer while he was sitting right in front of her.

Gus took this in stride and turned to begin asking Archer questions instead. “How have things been, Archer?”

“I have been performing exactly as my protocols dictate, and internal diagnostics show that I am following my programming to within plus or minus point oh oh oh one percent of the acceptable error range. I am perfect, Gus.”

Gus nodded. “I think I get it,” he said to Mrs. Flenderson.

“Get what, Gus?” Archer asked.

“What the problem is.”

“There can’t be a problem with me, Gus. My internal diagnostics show no discernible errors. I am perfect, and am acting exactly how Molly wants me to. The problem has to be with her.”

Gus smiled and unpacked his briefcase onto the table before pulling out a chair and sitting down. “I’ve certainly seen this before,” he said. He picked up his datapad and sat typing and consulting it for a few minutes. After a while he looked up at Archer.

Archer looked back at him, then raised his arm and settled his forearm onto the table. The skimulant broke apart and the hatch on his arm opened. Gus reached across the table and pulled out his data card. Archer went quiet.

“A large part of our business,” Gus said, “revolves around rather…simple husband and wife pairings. Originally the androids were designed for elderly people who wanted a companion to spend their days with, and whose children wanted a reliable caretaker for their aging parents. But that’s a simpler type of programming.

“As younger and younger customers started coming along, the relationship algorithms had to become more complicated.

“And if I’m being honest here?” Gus gave Molly a look. “Between you, me, and the switched off android…you can’t exactly test out this software in the lab. BioElectronics Inc. sets every customer up with a rep like me because we need your feedback and input.

“Which,” and he slipped the card out of his datapad, “is the long way around of saying that I am dedicated to matching you with the perfect android, and if you’re willing to work on this relationship, I can guarantee you that match.”

He reached across and slipped Archer’s card into his forearm, then flipped the hatch closed and the skimulant sealed itself.

Molly didn’t respond, although Gus’s focus was back on Archer now. The android came alive and looked around. His eyes noticed Molly watching him and his face grew puzzled. “I have new coding, but it does not make any sense.”

Molly raised her eyebrows, unsure of what Archer was talking about, and looked to Gus.

“Yup,” Gus said. “Archer, we’re going to try and get you acting more like a person instead of a Molly database.”

“But why?” Archer asked. “I am everything that Molly has decided she likes. I am perfect. Asking me to ignore some of the things I know about Molly and act in a manner that isn’t perfect should not be something Molly would request.”

“Well,” Gus said, his own face growing puzzled as he tried to think through his response, “people don’t usually want perfect. They wish for it maybe, or they dream about it, but in the end people want someone who shows them sides of themselves that they never knew existed.”

“That is ridiculous. The unexpected cannot possibly compare to perfection. I am exactly what she wants.” Archer’s voice was becoming insistent as he struggled with the concept. He looked around the room, searching for something to help him. His eyes fell on the drawing of the rose still hanging on the refrigerator. “It is like that?” he asked.

“Hm?” Gus answered, unsure of what Archer was referring to.

Archer stood up and retrieved the drawing. “This,” Archer said. “It is your ugly and inaccurate drawing of a rose. Yet Molly liked it enough to hang it up. Is this what you want me to do?” he asked Molly. “Be ugly and inaccurate in order to please you?”

“Not…quite.”

Archer sat back down and studied the drawing. Then he looked back at Gus and Molly. “Help me understand this please?”

“Perfect is kind of boring,” Molly said. “It is also predictable. Sometimes a person wants to be surprised, or to get a response that isn’t exactly what they’re thinking. Or to see a drawing of a rose, but to also see in that drawing the man who drew it.”

“You see Gus in this drawing?” Archer asked.

Molly looked at Gus and a surprising amount of emotion filled her face. She nodded. “I think that’s one way of putting it, yes. It is his interpretation of a rose.”

Archer studied the drawing hard. “It is not a rose that Gus drew. It was his own inaccurate memory of what a rose is combined with his inferior fine-motor skills which made a sub-par drawing.”

“I’m sitting right here, Archer,” Gus said.

Archer’s face suddenly lit up. “I understand!” he said.

Gus and Molly both leaned in slightly as Archer’s enthusiasm was so infectious.

Archer began to look about for a pen and paper, eventually having to get up and wander into another room before finding some. He sat back down and began to draw. The precision of his pen strokes was astonishing, it was more like watching a printer at work as he went over the paper line by line, filling in what needed to be drawn. He had brought a few different color pens back to the table, and he went over the slip of paper with each one in turn. When he was done he slid the piece of paper over to Molly, beaming with a smile that showed how proud he was of himself.

Molly took the paper and looked at it. “It’s…a swan?” She held up the paper to show Gus a highly detailed drawing of a swan, done mostly in blue.

Archer nodded excitedly. “Except it’s not. That is a drawing of a rose. It looks nothing like a rose at all, therefore it is of high quality.” Archer reached across the table and excitedly tapped on the drawing. “I even made the swan blue, which is a color that neither swans nor roses come in.” Archer laughed. “It is exactly what you like!”

Gus smiled as he watched the android, having had more experience with them he was enjoying Archer’s attempts at understanding, and this was Gus’s first time hearing Archer laugh. There was a lot of work to be done obviously, but something interesting was developing in his programming to be sure.

Molly was more confused than anything. “It’s a swan,” she said.

“It’s a rose!” Archer said, beaming.

“Well this is quite interesting,” Gus said. “Archer, I want to look at your card again.”

Archer started noticing finally that his drawing wasn’t producing the expected result and he sat back in his chair, a defeated slump in his shoulders. “Okay, Gus,” he said, putting his arm out onto the table.

Gus began interacting with his datapad, the skimulant on Archer’s forearm separated in a thin line, and the hatch popped open.

Gus reached over and pulled out Archer’s card. He slipped it into his datapad and began scrolling through information. Occasionally he printed out a sheet of paper and laid it on the table, lining up a few sheet and glancing over them from time to time. The room began to take on the dark shades of evening as the daylight disappeared outside.

Molly got up to turn the lights on, the halogen bulb casting bright light into the large spaces of her apartment that she was unable to fill on her own.

Gus was lost in his work when Molly asked him if he would like a cup of coffee. He shook his head no, but when she returned to the table, mug in hand, he realized that he had been ignoring her while engrossed in his study of Archer’s data.

He smiled at Molly as she took a sip of coffee, trying to act nonchalant about having turned her into a stranger in her own home. “I’m sorry,” Gus said. “I didn’t realize how much that one conversation had changed Archer. I should have taken my leave and studied this all back at the shop. There’s better equipment there, I just…” he stopped talking, not able to come up with a professional sounding reason as for why he had let himself zone-out while in Molly’s apartment. “Look,” he said, starting over, “this is all part of the process of pairing a human up with an android counterpart.” He could see that Molly was still nervous and there were shades of expression on her face that reminded Gus of how Molly had looked after arguing with her mother. Gus reached out and delicately took her hand. “We are going to make this work. I am going to make this work. You have my word, okay.” His hand lingered for a bit after this reassurance, and he gave her fingers a little squeeze.

Something passed between them, compassion and empathy, a moment held between two as the twilight of the world passed by outside the windows. Gus withdrew his hand and went back to his datapad, diligently trying to gloss over what had just happened.

Molly traced her fingertip across the tabletop nervously, and mustered up her courage. “Gus, I’m about to make dinner. Would you maybe want to stay for a bite to eat? Take a break from work?” She looked at him intently.

Gus cleared his throat and began to rearrange papers on the table in an overt display of looking busy as he avoided Molly’s eyes. His flustered hands fumbled his datapad onto the table. He stood up abruptly and shook his head, “I have to go,” was all he managed as he hurriedly slipped Archer’s data card back into his forearm and swept all his papers together. “BioElectronics Inc. is committed to your relationship,” he began saying, the words not his but instead the rote copy of a business memo. “We will match you with your android, and that is our promise. I have to go now, Mrs. Flenderson,” he said, the barest hint of sentiment in his voice as he spoke her name. “I’ll return to run some more tests tomorrow, though I think, considering Archer’s inability to meet your needs, I will bring a supervisor with me during said future visit.”

Molly was taken aback at Gus’s abrupt tone and barely had time to react before he was heading for the door. As he passed her chair he looked down at her and was visibly torn. “I’m sorry, my contract,” was all he managed to say before he left the apartment.

Archer, just coming online, looked around puzzled. “What was that about?” he asked.

 

—–

 

Gus’s supervisor was Mr. Markrham. The next day when Gus came over, Mr. Markrham came along. There was little small-talk, almost all of the conversation involved Molly’s situation with Archer. The session was long, near-grueling, as Mr. Markrham observed Gus’s attempts to tune Archer to be a better fit for Molly.

Gus was increasingly fumbling and awkward, the entire situation had rattled him. Molly grew more confused as Archer continued to be unworkable and she began to lose hope in the entire idea. Mr. Markrham watched everything and reassured Molly that BioElectronics Inc. was dedicated to her as a customer.

This went on for a few days until one morning Mr. Markrham and Gus showed up with a few more men in tow.

Gus tapped out something on his data pad and Archer stuck out his arm and the skimulant peeled back. Gus retrieved Archer’s card, and handed it off to one of the new men who took charge of it before they began to carry Archer out of the apartment.

“I think it’s clear,” Mr. Markrham said, “that Archer is not going to be a fit for you.”

Molly hadn’t wanted to live with Archer, but she still felt a wave of panic watching the nameless men begin to carry him away. “What’s going to happen to him?” she asked with concern.

“Oh, Mrs. Flenderson,” Mr. Markrham said, catching her tone instantly and replying with shock. “Nothing sinister. Archer represents a considerable investment for BioElectronics Inc. and the work that we’ve done here, while it didn’t make him into your match, is well worth studying and monitoring. Archer will be put to use in our laboratory and we’ll keep an eye on his development and continue searching for another opening for him in the outside world.

“Now, though, I am far more concerned about an android for you.”

Molly looked deflated, the entire process had not left her feeling optimistic.

The nameless men took Archer out the door and as the front door shut Mr. Markrham looked down the hall with satisfaction.

“I’m not sure this is for me,” Molly said.

“Well surely you’ll want to try with a more suitable operating system?” Mr. Markrham asked.

“I don’t…what I meant was I’m not sure if this entire process is for me. I don’t know that building a man is what I want anymore.”

“Mrs. Flenderson, BioElectronics Inc. is dedicated to you as a—“

“I know, I know,” Molly said wearily. “Can we put this on hold for a few days? I don’t think I want to start over right now.”

“I’m not sure you need to wait a few days,” Mr. Markrham said. He took a data pad out from his briefcase and studied it. “And as for starting over…” he began typing away.

Molly turned to look at Gus, who had been sitting this entire time at the kitchen table, silent and sickly looking with worry. Gus looked back and her and as Mr. Markrham typed, Gus held out his forearm. The skimulant began to melt away as three sides of a hatch appeared on Gus’s forearm.

“Well,” Mr. Markrham said, “as for starting over…you wouldn’t exactly be starting over.” He reached out and plucked Gus’s card from his forearm and slid it into his datapad. “We were surprised but pleased to see that we had a possible android match for you already worked out. It’s just a matter of changing some code to allow Gus the permission to date a client. Is that…” Mr. Markrham looked at Molly hesitantly. “…is that something you would like to try?”

Molly looked back and forth from the now immobile Gus to the datapad in Mr. Markrham’s hands.

“Mrs. Flenderson?” Mr. Markrham prompted as Molly only sat and stared at Gus, stunned.

“Mrs. Flendeson would you be open to trying out Gus as your android?” Mr. Markrham tried again.

“But, is that all you’ll change?” Molly suddenly asked, turning to Mr. Markrham, her voice full of panicked excitement. “He’ll still be Gus?”

“Yes, of course. It’s become quite clear that you want something other than just what’s on your questionnaire and BioElectronics Inc. is dedicated to finding—“

“Yes!” Molly said, shutting up Mr. Markrham. “Yes, let me see Gus.”

Mr. Markrham typed for a few seconds and then slid Gus’s card out of his datapad and into Gus’s forearm, flipping the hatch closed. The skimulant sealed itself and a slightly confused Gus glanced around the room before seeing Molly and looking up at her. “Molly,” he said, wonder in his face as he realized the words he was about to speak. “Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?”

Molly nodded excitedly. Unsure of what to do she reached a hand out for Gus, then hesitated, then paused again when Gus looked confused at her hesitation, then brushed that all aside and took Gus’s hand, beaming. “Yes. Yes I would,” she said.

Gus leaned towards her and began talking excitedly and the two were deep in conversation within seconds while Mr. Markrham coughed and tried not to feel like a third-wheel as he made his exit.

 

—–

 

Archer shined a penlight into the android’s eye. He studied the andriod’s pupils, calibrating their dilation to within microns. Satisfied he shone the light in the other eye. Something went off in his programming and he straightened up and looked down the row of androids waiting for eye inspections. His human supervisor was signing off for the day and that meant Archer had to leave the lab.

He walked past android after android and then out into the hall. He could receive and give conversation for socialization needs at the cantina, but his desire for food and drink was low so he opted to go to the android break room. He made his way there and walked through a small group of androids, acknowledging the various faces that he recognized, then found a seat at a table in the rear. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a small pad of paper and a pen. Then he began drawing. His pen moved with precision, line-by-line across the page, as it printed out a picture of Molly. He stared at it, still confused, shaking his head. “I don’t understand,” he said. Then he flipped to a blank page and drew another perfect picture of Molly.

This time he stared at it for a long time, his computing brain slowly subsiding behind his eyes as he pondered. His shoulders relaxed and a hint of realization came into his face.

“I don’t understand.”

He said the words as a new statement, something foreign that he hadn’t truly considered before. His eyebrows drew down in thought and he stared off into space, contemplating this new realization.

And, as he stared, his pen began to move lazily over the paper in sloppy but artistic strokes, sketching a picture of a swan.

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. Pingback: TWA #10 – Machine Made Art Battle Thread - The Writer's Arena

  2. Joseph I was really impressed with the quantity of issues that this story addresses. Aging, companionship, love, loss, technology and our love affair with it both now and in the future. The idea that we could craft the perfect companion, banking on the idea that we will ever be able to put our smartphones down to get attached to anything else, was both interesting and creepy. How close does artificial intelligence get to the line before it is actual intelligence?

    I felt the ending would have more staying power, if the story concluded with the budding relationship between Gus and Molly. The twist of him being an android was unexpected. As soon as I read it I thought, damn, that’s gonna cost me. Very nicely done. I also really liked the idea that we could build something so powerful, so intelligent and something as simple as a drawing could confuse its programming. It really illustrates the complexity of what art really is and its profound effect on us.

    I really enjoyed this story. Kudos for a great tale.

  3. THIS MADE ME SO HAPPY.

    Just…eeek…also, I adored this bit: “…people don’t usually want perfect. They wish for it maybe, or they dream about it, but in the end people want someone who shows them sides of themselves that they never knew existed.”

    Bravo. My day has an extremely inspired layer to it now.

  4. Very nicely done. A deft handling of the theme — The story felt a lot to me like what an Elmore Leonard story about androids might look like…

    Nicely done…

  5. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    What a wonderful story. It affirms a thought I’ve had repeating in my head for much of the past year after first coming to know of Mr. Devon’s work: If I had my choice of any alternative universe in which to exist, I would wish it to be within Joseph Devon’s imagination.

    I’m really into Joseph Devon’s style of writing. It includes a lot of detail and subtlety upon which to build the narrative. I’m not certain this story was the best representative of this as I felt that at times this one should have moved along a little more quickly, and yet I also knew all along there was a very important reason for the subtle hints that were planted into each of the interactions between the main characters.

    Maybe becoming familiar with Mr. Devon’s work is part of the reason I saw the ending coming. I knew almost right away that Gus was an android too. So the resolution, to me, didn’t come across as so much a big reveal as more of a very satisfying balancing narrative element.

    Perhaps that is also why I actually really appreciated the closing piece with Archer in the lab. But had this been a longer story (not constrained to the typical short story format), this would have been perfectly fitting as an epilogue – something that is immediately related to the core of the story, but sets just a little bit outside of it.

    Wonderful work, Mr. Devon. You never cease to impress me.

  6. So good.

    I want to echo Jon Jones, because he’s already said most of what I wanted to say, but I have to add this: you’re making it very, very difficult to continue justifying not being able to “afford” your books.

    Had you been up against any other story, this would have got my vote in an instant.

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