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First pages

Chapter One
What the Courier Said

Teth leaned as far over the balcony railing as he dared, feeling the press of the cold metal bar against his stomach, and thrust the hunting pole toward the clothesline. Made of hollow aluminum, the pole was dented in many places, scars from all the times he had banged it on the railing or on the wall. At the end of the pole, a little loop of nylon rope was threaded through a hole. With the pull of a crude trigger, he could contract the loop, but first he had to get it around the head of the line rat. The fat little animal had a long tapered nose, dusky fur, and loose folds of skin that drooped over the sides of the clothesline. But nimble forepaws and a prehensile tail kept it from falling into the hazy, red gloom below.

The vile creatures had terrible eyesight, scarcely able to see an inch in front of them, with tiny pink eyes buried deep in their faces. They relied more on an acute sense of smell, so Teth had smeared a bit of grease on the inside of the loop. As he lowered the pole toward the clothesline, the rat lifted its face and sniffed at the air, rocking its long nose from side to side.

“That’s it, you fat thing,” Teth whispered. Their sense of hearing wasn’t much better than their eyesight. “Get a good whiff.”

He started to slip the open loop around the rat’s head, but something moved out of the corner of his eye, some small object sailing out of the shadows of the balcony beneath his own. It hit one end of the clothesline near the hinged U-bolt that secured it to the handrail. The line bounced, and the rat, moving with surprising speed, dropped to the underside of the line, hanging by its tiny claws. Teth cursed and tried to move the hunting pole around to catch it, but the creature scurried away, moving toward the lower balcony. Then it dropped, grabbed an edge of one of the balusters, and slipped out of sight.

“Why did you do that?” Teth shouted, banging the metal pole against the handrail. “I almost had it!”

A hand, long-fingered and gaunt, reached out from the lower balcony and slapped his pole aside. The face followed soon after, a sunken-cheeked woman with sparse gray hair and rotten teeth. She twisted around onto her back to look up at him, shaking her fist.

“I don’t want you hunting off my line,” she said. “That rat’s on my property.”

Teth drew the pole back in before she could snag it with her long fingers. “You weren’t trying to catch it. You didn’t even know it was there. I saw it first.”

“Stay on your own balcony, you thief,” the woman said, spitting between the blackened stumps of her incisors. “You got no right to reach down into my property.”

Her right hand whipped out and flung something up at him. A long, bloody bone from a freshly killed animal, it spiraled up toward his handrail. He leaned to one side, but he needn’t have bothered. The spinning bone reached its apex beneath him and dropped away, leaving a single fleck of blood on his cheek as it went. The old woman made a grab for it in passing but missed, and Teth watched as it fell past the twenty or so balconies that were visible beneath his own before disappearing in the fog and murk.

“Stay on your own balcony,” the old woman shouted again. “Don’t hunt off my line.”

At this, someone above them called down. “Both of you shut up. Nobody wants to listen to your bickering.”

The old woman swiped her hand, snarled, and slipped back out of sight. Then, for good measure, she grabbed the crude stick that held the clothesline in place and folded it back inside her balcony. Teth shook a fist at her and turned away. Furious, he threw punches in the air, trying to picture that snarling face before him, but it didn’t make him feel any better. A line rat would’ve meant extra food, and the bones and skin might have come in handy. It was rare to see one so close, and he’d had that stupid hunting pole at the ready for months with no luck. Another second or two, and he would’ve had the thing by its neck.

Teth slumped down on the floor of his balcony and put his back against the balusters. His home wasn’t much, and on a day like this, a day when a desperate attempt for some small thing had failed, it felt like an absolute hovel. The living space sank back into the wall about four feet, three metal walls and a curved handrail enclosing his whole world. On the right, a thin mat and blanket served as his bed. A plastic barrel sat at the foot of the bed, dented and dirty and much used. In the far corner, he had a small stove set into a recessed hole halfway up the wall, with cabinets on either side, and a sink and toilet stuck out of the wall beneath a round mirror scarcely bigger than the palm of his hand.

And that was it, his home, his whole world. Though it wasn’t much, he knew some people in the City had it worse. In fact, he’d had a few wretched years of his own after the factory fire, years of wandering down in the dark and damp, desperate and floundering, before the paperwork had cleared for the new job. He’d lucked out on the view. Since his balcony was halfway up the wall, he was high enough to see over the shorter buildings, and since he was positioned on a straight east-west thoroughfare, he had a clear view of the sun from morning to evening, which meant plenty of light at all times of the day. And even at night, though the sky haze blurred the stars, there were lit windows on the wall opposite his building.

Yes, his situation could’ve been much worse, and there were times when he was grateful. But not on a day like this. Oh, he had enough food to survive, but just barely. An extra mouthful was a big deal. Teth sighed and crawled over to his bed. He didn’t bother pulling back the blanket but flopped onto his back, tucking his hands behind his head and kicking off his shoes.

Old hag, I hope you choke on rat bones, he thought.

Teth closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but it was hopeless. His guts felt all knotted up. He rolled onto his side, facing the wall, but that didn’t help either. He would have worked, but he’d already finished his assignment for the day. Still restless, he sat up, grabbed the top edge of the plastic barrel, and tipped it over so he could reach inside. His work consisted of putting together small circuit boards, sliding the little pieces into place. It didn’t require much skill, just the ability to follow diagrams on the instruction sheets. It also didn’t pay much, but it provided daily provisions.

He picked through the stack of green circuit boards, dug out the instruction sheet and studied the diagrams. All pointless but it passed the time. Soon enough, as the setting sun turned the sky haze a bright, bloody red, and the rush and growl of the city shifted into a lower register, he heard the rumble of gears above his balcony. He rose, wrapped his arms around the barrel, and dragged it toward the handrail.

The bottom of the lift reached the balcony just above his, and he heard the courier chatting with his neighbor. A moment later, the gears creaked again, and the lift lowered to his level. The lift was little more than a plastic bench set inside a metal framework, raised and lowered by sturdy ropes wound through a large box on top. The courier sat in the middle of the bench, blue barrels on either side of her—one to collect the work, the other to dole out the daily provisions for those who had finished their assignment.

“Is your assignment complete?” the courier said. She didn’t bother to look up, her gaze fixed on a small plastic device in her right hand. Green letters flashed on the screen, though Teth couldn’t read them upside down.

He didn’t recognize her. She had a weary face, tired eyes, her limp, brown hair pulled back into a lazy ponytail. Despite this, Teth found her a more pleasant sight than the crusty old man that had served before her. When he failed to answer her question, she frowned and glanced up.

“Assignment complete?” she said tightly, tapping a finger on the flashing screen in her hand.

They locked eyes for a second, and he felt a strange flutter of fear. He had no idea why. Something in her gaze, some sudden glimmer of emotion. He quickly bowed his head, and for a moment, neither of them spoke. Finally, for lack of anything better to do, Teth reached down into his barrel and dug out the stack of completed circuit boards, piling them up neatly between his hands. Then he thrust them at her. But she didn’t take them, and he dared to meet her gaze again. What was the emotion there? Distrust? Fear? For some reason, it made him feel guilty. Had he done something to her? But, no, of course not. He had never seen this woman before.

“I finished them all,” he said. “If you’ll take these, I can get the instruction sheet to prove it.”

She set her handheld device on the bench and took the boards from him, but she moved slowly, as if reluctant. One at a time, she dropped the completed boards into the barrel on her right. Then she picked up the handheld device and turned back to him.

“Do you have my provisions?” he asked. When she didn’t answer, he grabbed the small paper instruction sheet from the bottom of his barrel and showed it to her. “They are all done correctly, if you want to double check.”

She took the sheet of paper from his hand and tossed it into the barrel with the circuit boards. The whole barrel was already halfway full from all of the collections she’d done on balconies above him. Teth wondered briefly how his work compared to those of his neighbors. He’d heard rumors that those who did particularly good work got better provisions. But the courier handed him nothing. For a few more tense seconds, she merely stared at him.

“My provisions?” Teth asked.

She reached into the barrel on her left, grabbing blindly, and pulled out a small, wrapped package, thrusting it at him. As he reached out to take it, she drew back.

“It really is you, after all,” she said. The bland, emotionless drone of a courier gave way to something raw and real. “I was afraid to look, afraid to find out I was wrong. But now that I’ve seen your face, I’m sure of it.”

“Sure of what?” Teth replied. He tried to grab the provision pack again, but she twisted to one side to keep it out of reach.

“That I know you,” she said.

This struck Teth as so absurd that he laughed. When his laughter made the courier glare at him, he turned it into a cough.

“I don’t think it’s possible,” he said. “I’ve been in this balcony for three years, and you’ve never worked the lift before, not that I recall. Unless maybe you came by one night while I was sleeping, though I don’t know why you’d do that.”

She shook her head. “No, not from here. Not from the balconies. From the factory.”

The possibility of it dredged up such dark memories that he gasped and stepped back from the handrail.

“I’m sure of it,” she said again.

He studied her face as long as he dared. Nothing about it seemed familiar, but he saw the recognition in her gaze now. “No, we…” But would he have remembered her anyway? There had been so many faces in the factory, so many bodies huddled in the dark. “We shouldn’t speak of such things,” he said, finally. “We don’t talk about the factory. That was a long time ago. And anyway, I didn’t work down on the factory floor. I stayed mostly on the platform with the viewscreens.”

“We never interacted on the floor, true, but I met you,” she said. “See, that’s the thing. This is why your face is so clear in my memories. We spoke on the stairs in the back hallway when you broke open the window, and—”

“You must be mistaken,” he said, cutting her off. His whole body tingled with a sudden desperate need to get away from the courier, the balcony, the deep and dark things in his mind.

“During the fire,” she continued. “You broke the window with a rusty gear from a tool closet, and some of us were able to climb out before the smoke overwhelmed us. You probably saved twenty, thirty people. I could never forget your face.”

“We don’t speak of such things,” he said again, swiping both of his hands at her. “The factory was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter.”

“But you don’t deny it was you,” she said. “And even if you did, it wouldn’t matter. I remember. I will remember you for the rest of my life.”

And with that, she finally thrust the provision pack at him. He took it in trembling hands and pulled it close against his body.

“I don’t want to talk about the factory anymore,” he said. “Please don’t talk about it ever again. It’s late now, and I need to sleep.”

She tapped the screen on her handheld device and said, “Well, I am behind schedule anyway. I mustn’t linger.”

“Will there be more work?” Teth asked.

“Tomorrow morning, as usual,” she replied. She set the device down beside her on the bench and reached for a small control panel in the framework of the lift.

Her finger poised above a lever, but she didn’t move it, not yet. Teth took another step back, hoping she would take it as her cue to leave. She didn’t. She hesitated a few more seconds, not looking at him, biting her lip. “There are things you do not know.”

“Of course. Nobody can know everything.”

She spoke right over him. “Things you do not know about the fire. About the factory. About the city. Terrible things.”

“I can’t think of any reason to discuss it,” he said. “The factory was many years ago. I am doing much better now. It’s all behind me.”

She seemed to accept this, nodding, and moved the lever. The lift began to descend. As she sank beneath the handrail, she glanced at him one last time, eyes wide, lips drawn back.

“Teth, your name is Teth,” she said. “My name Cera.”

“See-ruh,” he replied. “Never heard it before.”

“There are things you should know,” she said. “Things I need to tell you.”

And then she was beneath his level and moving down to the balcony below. Teth was tempted to rush over to the handrail to get another look at her. He fought the urge, turned, and flung himself onto his mat, burying the small provision pack under his arms. He heard the quiet voices of the courier and the old woman beneath him. The old woman sounded annoyed. Maybe she had failed to complete her assignment. Teth didn’t know. He didn’t care.

The factory, the fire, his family, all of these things had seemed so distant, buried deep in the shadows of his mind, but Cera had dredged it all up, as if stirring up the muck from the bottom of a pool. What had already been a frustrating day now felt like the end of the world, a precipitous slide into a bottomless pit. Teth didn’t bother to unwrap his provision pack. Finally, he worked his way under his blanket and pulled it up over his head, so he wouldn’t see anything. But he still heard the rumble of the lift gears, and it kept the memories fresh for a while. When the lift reached the bottom of the row and started back up to the top of the wall, he listened to the growing sound with mounting panic. The courier would pass by again. Would she say something? He couldn’t bear to hear it, so he pressed his hands against his ears and shut his eyes tightly.

If she said anything, he didn’t catch it. When finally, after long minutes, he moved his hands away from his ears, the sounds of the lift were long gone, and the evening hum of the city had taken over. Teth pushed the blanket down to his stomach and worked the provision pack out from under his body. Absently, he fiddled with the edges of the paper wrapping.

“I don’t want to remember,” he said. “I don’t ever want to remember. Not ever.”

Chapter Two
Ghost Faces

He tossed and turned most of the night, fighting memories that, now awakened, demanded to be seen and felt and experienced. When he did manage to fall into a light and troubled sleep, those memories turned into horrible dreams filled with the smell of smoking machinery and burning flesh. Finally, he gave up and crawled over to the sink, turning the handle so that a tiny trickle of cold water fell from the spigot. He gathered the water in his cupped hands and splashed it on his face, rubbing it into his eyes, as if it might scour away the things he had seen.

It was no use. No amount of water could wash away his past. He pulled a tattered rag from the cabinet beside the stove and patted his face dry. Then he walked over to the handrail and sat down, pressing his face into the gap between balusters to await the dawn. Work would help diminish the past. It usually did. And if he had any luck at all, he would get a big assignment that day.

As he sat there, he gazed down into the depths of the city. The window lights on the far side of the thoroughfare went all the way down, and he could see the ones near the bottom glowing through the perpetual haze that hovered above the street. By that soupy light, he also sensed the movement of vehicles and street-dwellers. They moved like blurry dream shadows. For three years this had been his life, three quiet and meaningless years, and now some random courier wanted to drag his mind back into bad places. No, he would not go. He would not go back there for anything.

By the time the first light of morning burned beyond the end of the thoroughfare to the east, turning the haze into fire, indignation and anger had settled in his belly. He clutched the balusters, twisting his hands back and forth as if wringing necks. Then he heard the creak of the lift gears above him. He rose and leaned over the handrail, turning his body around to gaze up the wall at the balconies above him. There were twenty-three balconies above his own, and on a clear day, he could see them all. But the lift was only three floors above him.

“Don’t let me down,” he whispered, sending hopeful thoughts to the morning work assigner. “I need work, lots and lots of work to fill up the whole day.”

And then the lift came down to his level, and the morning assigner came into view, and he was only moderately surprised to see that it was the courier girl from the evening before. The same lift, with its blue plastic seat and steel framework, the same barrels on either side, and the same girl, with the weary eyes and loose ponytail. Teth groaned and stepped back from the handrail.

“You again?” he said. “How are you working both mornings and evenings?”

“I traded with a coworker,” she replied, her gaze fixed firmly on the little device in her hand. She idly tapped the screen.

“Why?”

“I think you know the reason why. I had to see your face again, to make sure it’s really you. Reading your name in a database file is one thing, but seeing you with my own eyes is entirely different, more real. Last night, I caught a glimpse, but you’ve changed. After my shift, I began to think maybe I was wrong. You know how your mind can mess with you.”

“You were wrong,” he replied. “Count on it.”

But she shook her head now and looked at him, unflinching. “I wasn’t. Your name is Teth, and you saved my life seven years ago in the munitions factory fire near the Core. I only doubted because it was night, and my sleep-addled mind got confused.”

She reached into the barrel on her right and produced a large package. It was wrapped in the same water-soluble white paper as the provision pack. Teth reached out and took it. And, as luck would have it, the work load felt heavier than usual. That, at least, was a minor blessing on a dark morning.

“I try hard not to think about my days in the factory,” he said. “If you’re going to work the lift morning and evening, you can’t keep bringing it up, Cera, whether I saved your life or not. You’ll force me to transfer out of here, and I will. I’ll find another balcony, or I’ll find some job opening in a distant sector. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it looks like I’ve got a lot of work to do today, and you don’t want to fall behind on your schedule again.”

Cera reached for the lift control panel but hesitated. “But how did you wind up here? These balcony jobs are just about the worst in the city. Teth, this place is not intended for people like you. I grew up in deplorable conditions that were only marginally worse than this.”

Her words offended him. Yes, he knew damn well this balcony wall was scraping the bottom, but he’d experienced worse. “I was on the streets for almost four years, but I filled out paperwork for a balcony job because it was better than digging through trash piles. This is what was available, so I took it. Anyway, it’s out of sight of the Core. Why do you care?”

“Because you deserve better.”

“Well, we don’t always get what we deserve, do we? Shouldn’t you get going now?”

“Yes, but…” She cleared her throat, glanced left and right. “Teth, I saw things…I saw…things that you should know about.” She hesitated a moment before adding, “I saw what caused the fire.”

Teth, his heart racing, slowly lowered his assignment pack onto his bed mat, if only to ensure that he would not drop it. “What do you mean? What did you see?”

“I shouldn’t say,” Cera replied. “Not here. Not out loud. Maybe…maybe I’ll write it down, slip the note to you in your provision pack this evening. But if you knew what I know...”

She left the comment hanging. Teth started to say something else, but she flicked the lever to lower the lift, shaking her head as she sank out of sight. By the twist of her lips, she seemed distressed. And why should that be? Hadn’t she brought the whole thing up to begin with? Teth couldn’t imagine what she might have seen, or why it troubled her so much. It didn’t matter what had caused the factory fire. Nothing could be done about it anyway.

Yet some part of him wanted to know. He stepped up to the handrail and looked down at the lift, but he couldn’t see Cera now. The big lift mechanism was in the way. He thought about calling down to her, but he didn’t want the old rat thief beneath him to overhear.

A note, she’d said. She would write it down and give him a note. Which meant he would know the truth by evening, and as he sat down to do his work, his curiosity wrestled with his stomach-churning anxiety. Yes, he did want to know, after all, and that was the problem. Though the information couldn’t possibly do him any good, he did want to know why his old life had suddenly come to an end one night in smoke and fire.

He sat down on his bed and pulled the assignment pack into his lap, working at the seams of the paper wrapping. When it finally came apart, individual smaller packages of electronic parts and a stack of green boards tumbled out. Teth wadded up the wrapping and tossed it in the barrel—he would dispose of the paper in the toilet later—then located the small instruction sheet folded up in the middle of the stack. He unfolded it and began to study the diagrams, but he found it hard to concentrate.

Why did she have to come here? Why did she have to say anything? There are thousands of balconies across the City. How did she happen to find mine?

Now he was caught between two worlds. The lift passed by again once the courier had completed the entire row. He glanced up at her this time, met her gaze, and scowled. She nodded at him before disappearing above.

The hours that passed afterward felt excruciating. What would the note say? Why did she think it so important that he know? What difference could it possibly make to his life here on the balcony?

All of the thinking made work difficult. After a couple hours of frustrating effort, he had only completed four circuit boards. Cursing, he set the rest of his work aside and went to the stove to make lunch. As he stood up, he heard a distinctive whirring sound in the thoroughfare. He stepped toward the handrail and looked west. The sound made a haunting echo high against the surrounding walls. It was a sound of trouble, and though it was routine, Teth always checked to make sure it had nothing to do with him or with any nearby balconies.

The dark silhouette of the sentry stood out against the hazy gray sky at the end of the thoroughfare. As always, Teth found its movements spider-like and creepy. The body of the sentry was shaped like two round plates set one on top of the other, and it moved using four long segmented legs—more like tentacles than legs, really. A shiny metal ring ran around the edge of the disk-like body, and large mechanical nodules hung off the ring at intervals. Some were lights, others loudspeakers, cameras, or weapons. The legs were at least fifty feet long, enabling the sentry, when necessary, to reach high floors. At the ends of the legs, the feet were small round objects, an amalgam of rubber and plastic, that enabled the sentry to move nimbly down the street without crushing vehicles or pedestrians.

As it moved, the ring spun from side to side, training cameras or weapons at the walls on either side. The top half of the sentry had windows, though they were tinted black. Teth had no idea what sort of men or creatures sat inside and piloted the machines, if any did. When he’d lived down in the streets, there had been much talk about the sentries, a thousand theories about them, but nobody knew anything for certain.

The loud whirring sound seemed to come from the shoulder joints where the long tentacle-legs connected to the underside of the sentry’s body. As they moved, they made a low mechanical sound, like many small gears turning first one way and then the other. The spinning metal ring made a sound of its own, softer, like a whisper of cloth, but still troubling. Teth lingered at the handrail as it approached, but it was a couple of levels below him. As it passed by, he leaned over and stared down at the windows. The vile rat thief was leaning over her own balcony to watch, and he had a sudden dark urge to grab his hunting pole and give her a good thump on top of the head—or a gentle shove over the side.

Late morning sunlight produced bright reflections on the windows of the sentry, but even without it, he doubted he would have seen anything inside. The contents of the ship remained a total mystery. As he tracked its movement east, he realized that many people were watching from their balconies, and he saw ghost-shapes in the windows on the other side of the street as well. But the sentry kept going another fifty yards or so, sweeping its cameras and weapons from side to side, before turning at an intersection and disappearing behind a building. The echo of its passing took longer to fade. Teth heard audible sighs of relief from numerous balconies, as he turned and went to his stove.

Lunch consisted of boiled noodles with a small cube of flavoring powder from his provision pack. It took forever for the water to boil, and when he finally ate, it settled heavy in his stomach. He spent the hours after lunch feeling sick, anxious, and fearful, but he was determined to complete every circuit board. Teth was not one to miss out on provisions. To get done, he had to kneel facing the corner, put the circuit boards on the floor in front of him, and lean in close. This helped him concentrate on one piece at a time.

He finished the last board just in time to hear the courier lift descending into his row of balconies. Quickly, he gathered up the stack of circuit boards, tucked the instruction sheet inside, and turned around to see the courier sliding into view in front of him. Wide-eyed, a sheen of sweat on her upper lip and forehead, she beckoned him close. As he approached, she glanced about.

“Did you complete your assignment?” Cera asked, almost too softly to be heard.

He nodded and thrust the pile of completed circuit boards at her. She took them in her hands, gently, as if afraid of breaking them. Though she should have checked them to verify the work, she didn’t even give them a glance as she lowered them into the barrel on her right. Teth started to say something, to ask her about the note, but she pressed a finger to her lips and shook her head. Then she reached into the barrel on her left and pulled out the small, wrapped provision pack. As she handed it to him, she reached into a pocket on the front of her gray uniform, produced a small square of paper, and slid it on top.

“Your provisions for the day,” she said, as he took them.

The square of paper had been folded many times, but because it was made of the same translucent, water-soluble paper as the package, he could see a hint of writing on the other side. He took the provision pack in one hand and picked up the folded paper with the other. When he held it up to her, she shook her head again.

“Put it in the toilet when you’re done,” she said. “Make sure it dissolves completely.”

“Why? Is there a problem?”

She bit her lower lip, glanced down at her own hands, and nodded. “Almost certainly. Can’t explain now. Read it. Flush it when you’re done.” She picked up the handheld device from the bench beside her, pressed a button, and set it down again.

“Is it safe to read?”

To this, she merely shrugged. “Read it anyway.” And then she reached for the control panel and the lift began to lower. He watched her descend past the handrail, but she did not look at him again.

When she was gone, he went to the corner by his bed and sat down, placing the provision pack to one side. He unfolded the note, but slowly, hesitantly, holding it low to the ground, though he knew it was unlikely that anyone else was in a position to read it, or care. Cera had scribbled in tiny print with a fine tipped pen in black ink. When Teth got the whole note unfolded and laid out flat on top of the blankets, there was so much tiny writing—she had scrawled words from edge to edge, leaving no margins—that he found it eye straining.

He couldn’t bring himself to read it, not while she was still in the lift beneath him. He grabbed the provision pack and placed it on top of the note, clasped his hands to his knees, and waited until she reached the bottom balcony. Then he heard the growing sound of the gears as the lift ascended once again. When she passed his balcony, she slowed. He glanced up at her, and she gestured into the far corner.

“When you’re done, put it in the toilet,” she said, speaking so quietly that he had to read her lips to make out all of the words. “Don’t keep it. Get rid of it.”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Jeffrey Aaron Miller is a graduate of the Creative Writing program at the University of Arkansas and author of numerous novels and short stories. He has held a wide variety of jobs over the years, including but not limited to social worker, bus driver, postal carrier, pastor, tire salesman, and content writer, but through it all, he has remained a storyteller. He is a resident of Rogers, Arkansas, with his wife and kids.

Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Thematically, the story is about learning to care again after suffering tragedy. Teth has been in a detached survival mode for years, but suddenly he receives information that calls into question the City and everything he has ever believed.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Orson Scott Card, George R.R. Martin, J.R.R. Tolkien

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