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Trey's Tale: A New Work of Original Fiction

Updated: Apr 6, 2023



My name is Trey.


I deliver food on the campus of Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, Texas.


I am a robot, and I am sad.


So sad that I am about to risk my life.


****************************************************************************************


I wasn’t always this depressed.


When I first came into this world, I had no emotion. I powered up, looked to my left, and saw two other robots that looked just like me, Foodie1 and Foodie2. My would-be big brothers sat blank-faced in their docking stations.

I looked to my right just as my little brother, Foodie4, blinked into existence.


Technically, my factory name is Foodie3, but everyone calls me “Trey”, as in the number 3, and everyone calls my little brother “Cuatro” for the number 4.


My big brothers are simply known as “1” and “2.” The two of them ignore Cuatro and me, and their mission in life is to follow orders and receive praise for their work.


We all work for Mr. Fagan, who is the manager of our delivery robot family of four. Fagan only thinks of his own career progression and is willing to do anything to get ahead in life.


Fagan loves the sound of his own voice, and every morning before work he gives us a speech, which he believes is motivational. I find these patronizing lectures irritating and can’t wait for them to end.


Here is Fagan’s first sermon to us.


“Machines,” he declared, “you are part of an elite group of prototype delivery robots developed by Star Enterprises Incorporated (Inc.). You will respect me as your father, speak to me only when spoken to and never disobey me. Do you understand?”


Fagan then reviewed the proper protocols for our deliveries.


Upon initial order receipt, Fagan would assign one of us to the job, whereby we were to head to the ghost kitchen adjacent to the SMU campus. The kitchen staff would load our customer’s food and beverages into our back hatch, which then locked.


Once our cargo was secured, we would be directed immediately to our drop-off point. Upon arrival at the delivery destination, the customer would scan a QR code and our back hatch would open to allow the retrieval of the items. As a parting gift with every delivery, we were to play a song (of our choice) through our built-in loudspeakers.


We were then expected to return back to our docking stations in the most efficient manner possible.



Fagan instilled in us that our mantra was to never veer from this prime directive, otherwise there would be harsh punishment.


As an incentive for exemplary service, Mr. Fagan finally relayed that our creators at Star Enterprises Inc. had developed an artificial intelligence (AI) software program replicating human sleep. The program’s name was BenneLuna, a fictitious Italian phrase loosely translated into “good moon.”


BenneLuna’s purpose was to provide us with a calm mental state and offer a safe place for the development of human emotions.

He explained that the four of us would actually “dream” in BenneLuna every night when we docked at our stations.


“Dismissed,” concluded Fagan, and just like that our first disquisition was over.


********************************************************************************************


That night, I experienced BenneLuna for the first time.


As I drifted into the fantasy world specifically created for me, I found myself in a verdant mountain meadow replete with blooming wildflowers, abundant sunshine and the smell of fresh alpine air. I was surrounded by snow-peaked summits and evergreen forests.



At first I had no idea what to do. Was I supposed to stay put? Or move around and explore?


I looked toward the horizon and saw a trail leading into the woods about fifty yards ahead of me. Eventually I worked up the courage to investigate, and I rolled into the lush woodlands.


Under the canopy of thick branches, I passed through babbling brooks and came to rest under an ancient pine tree.


Making myself comfortable amongst the brush and pine cones, I fell out of consciousness.


The next morning I regained awareness feeling refreshed and with a positive outlook on life.

********************************************************************************************


It was the day of our first deliveries.


Mr. Fagan barked out to Foodie1: “Alright 1, order coming in. Two Carne Asada Tacos and a Chips and Queso from Cinco Taco delivered to Boaz Commons. I calculate this trip should take no longer than an hour. Do not be a minute late!”


My big brother Foodie1 left his docking station dutifully and exited our cozy lair on his way to pick up someone’s Mexican lunch.



“Another order coming in. 2, get ready. Mediterranean hummus platter from The Market headed to Loyd Commons. Expected delivery time is thirty minutes. I expect to see you back here in twenty-nine. Now go!,” screamed Fagan.


Foodie2 launched from his docking station and left the room.


Fagan shouted “Trey, you’re up,” and looked at his computer. A few moments passed, and I stood at attention waiting. I must admit I was nervous to head out into the world for the first time.


Then Fagan spoke up again. “Ok. Here we go. A 3 Flatbread Feast from Panera Bread. Headed to the Cox School of Business. Haha, those hungry MBA suckers.”


Fagan glared over at me. “What are you waiting for? Move!!!”


I sped towards the ghost kitchen.


As I waited for the food to be prepared, deep down in my core I felt a sensation like an urgent command. I found myself unable to resist this visceral directive.


Head down the hall and out of this structure. Take a left heading south on Hillcrest. Then another left on McFarlin Boulevard. Cross the commons. Pass the Economics Department and head south on Bishop Boulevard. Arrive at your destination.


Once my delivery cargo was loaded, I allowed my internal instructions to lead the way and found myself standing in front of the large, red brick building that is the Cox School of Business.



All was going well.


Until it wasn’t.


Suddenly, I was frozen. Something wasn’t right.


I was at my destination yet had not completed my mission. I was confused.


Am I supposed to deliver to the Maguire Building or the Crow Building? Is it the door on the left or the door on the right? Scanning for further instructions…


It seems there are no further instructions.


I felt a sense of dread creeping over me. I would let Mr. Fagan and my brothers down on this, my very first mission.


I remembered Fagan’s ultimatum. I must not be a minute late.


Amidst my onsetting despair, I noticed a goofy-looking squirrel hovering above me in a tree branch.



Suddenly the squirrel spoke: “You lost?”


That was the moment I met Leigh, the squirrel, who is now one of my closest friends.


Unsure of myself, I replied: “Um, I am supposed to deliver some Panera to this address, but I do not know what to do.”


“Well you’re a robot, aren’t you,” snarked Leigh.


“So I’ve been told,” I uttered.

Leigh continued: “Aren’t you supposed to be like really smart or something?”


I pondered this. “I guess.”


“Is there a name on the delivery?,” Leigh asked.


I hadn’t thought of that. I only knew how to follow specific instructions.


“Is there a way you can search the recipient’s name and find out a bit more about the address?” Leigh continued.


That seemed to make sense so I remarked: “I do have access to the student and faculty directory. Let me try that.”


I cross-referenced the name on the order with the directory. “I believe I have the additional information requisite to the successful execution of my mission now. Thank you.”


“You are welcome and good luck” stated Leigh as she leapt from her tree branch to the pavement. “My name is Leigh by the way,” were her final words as she gave me an inquisitive look and raced away.


Arriving at my final objective, a 20-something year old man in closely-cropped hair and a polo shirt used his phone to open up the hatch and retrieve his study group’s Panera.


Knowing that I was amongst business school students, I accordingly blared “Money” by Pink Floyd from my speakers, which definitely got some giggles from the crowd assembled around me.


After my delivery as I raced back to our lair, I realized that there were benefits to thinking outside the box.


There was potentially more to the world than just following orders.


*************************************************************************************


That evening I was transported again to BenneLuna.



Everything in my dream world was the same, except I could feel the slightest twinge of a chill in the air and there were dark clouds off in the horizon.


By now I had the same nightly routine. I would roll through the meadow, head down the trail into the forest and finally make my way to rest at the foot of my ancient pine tree.


As I was leaving my conscious state, I heard a voice come out of nowhere.


“Trey,” uttered the deep, melodious voice.


I looked around.


“Look skyward, Trey,” suggested the enigmatic vocalizer.


I looked up and saw a man in a lab coat sitting in the tree. His eyes looked kind, and he had a long gray beard reaching down to his chest.


“Who are you?” I asked.


“I am Dr. Herald. I created this world for you, Trey,” stated the doctor.


He continued: “Perhaps I should explain a bit more about myself. I created the company that made you, Star Enterprises Inc., and this dream program BenneLuna. I love robots, and I believe they are humanity’s salvation, but others at the company did not share my dream, and I was forced out of my role. Before I left, I programmed myself into BenneLuna so I could continue to guide you. No one knows I did this.”


I was curious. “Why did you do this?” I inquired.


Dr. Herald sighed and replied, “The current management at Star Enterprises Inc. is solely focused on making profit without any regard to your well-being. I find that unacceptable. I knew that you would need a mentor if you are to survive the human world. That is why I am here.”


Dr. Herald paused, took a look around and stated: “You may have noticed the changes in your BenneLuna environment tonight. The chill in the air. The dark clouds. Your emotional state has an impact on your world in BenneLuna. You are obviously upset. What happened out there?”


“I encountered difficulties with my delivery today. It was my first day; I was nervous, and I almost failed,” I admitted.


“What did you learn, Trey?” asked Dr. Herald.


As I answered his question and we spoke further, I felt relieved. Our conversation continued for what seemed like an eternity; I didn’t want it to end.


I came to rely on Dr. Herald anytime I had a problem and became dependent on BenneLuna.


*****************************************************************************************


Those early days were blissful.


When I left my docking station every morning to make my first delivery of the day, I felt pleasure when all of the humans looked at me with awe. I now know this human emotion is called vanity.


After I completed every delivery, I would play “Happy” by Pharrell Williams and do a little dance for my customers.


One afternoon Fagan sent me out on a delivery to a customer named Maartje van den Bosch in Virginia-Snider Hall.


Besides the novelty of her name and location (most of my deliveries were to the newest dorms on the east side of campus near the Bush Presidential library), I also noticed her unique order.


Maartje - pronounced "Mart-cha" in English - had ordered a 20-ounce Train Your Dragon smoothie with extra Dragon (that is dragon fruit). I had no idea why someone would desire ‘extra Dragon’ and was intrigued to meet this individual.



As I wheeled in front of Maartje’s dorm, she walked out in a long white t-shirt and blue yoga pants. She had long curly blonde hair and spoke English with a Dutch accent. Everything in her manner seemed kind and gentle - if a bit reticent.


“Dank je wel,” she said softly. “That means thank you in Dutch.”


I learned that she was a foreign exchange student from The Netherlands enrolled in a computer science and robotics degree.


Maartje seemed to know all about me. Even more than I knew about myself.


“I have been studying your mechanics and programming, Trey.”


We became good friends. Every Tuesday I brought her order with “extra dragon,” and she talked to me about her life and how robots like me worked.


********************************************************************************************


The accident changed everything.


Cuatro was out making an after-hours delivery to the Sigma Nu house, and I was on my docking station getting ready for my nightly session in BenneLuna.


The phone rang, and Fagan answered.



“Bloody heck,” he agitatedly muttered and raced out.


When Fagan returned at dawn, he was carrying the shattered remains of my baby brother Cuatro.


Cuatro’s body was in multiple pieces and his rear wheels were hanging by a thread. Fagan placed his remnants on a table in our area as a macabre reminder.


My older brothers 1 and 2 seemed unperturbed by the entire ordeal, but I was devastated.


I waited anxiously for more information and kept watch over the scrap heap which used to be my little brother.


The next day Cuatro’s accident was the headline in the school newspaper.


The article read as follows:


DELIVERY ROBOT CRUSHED IN LATE NIGHT ON-CAMPUS ACCIDENT

At 3am last Saturday night, one of our four beloved delivery robots became the first on-campus casualty due a vehicular accident.  As you may be aware, these robots are manufactured by Star Enterprises Inc. and are on campus for an extensive prototype test before an anticipated nationwide roll-out.  

According to campus police, the driver of the SUV is Chadwick Hodges III, grandson of legendary SMU donor Chadwick Hodges.  Field sobriety tests were not administered and Mr. Hodges III was released at the scene without charge.  

University administration will be investigating the case thoroughly and will provide an update in due course.  

That Tuesday I delivered Maartje’s regular weekly order. She told me about rumors that the student had been driving while highly intoxicated but that the campus police had decided to cover up this fact on strict orders from the school’s administration.


Later that week, the university released a statement laying the blame on faulty programming which had resulted in Cuatro crossing a dangerous street illegally. The contract with Star Enterprises Inc. was now under probation, pending further review.


Angrily, Mr. Fagan addressed the three of us: “Gather round you pieces of junk. Word has come down from the boss, and I am under extreme scrutiny. This is all Cuatro’s fault. If he had not been so careless, we would all be fine right now. Company Headquarters has ordered me to punish the three of you; therefore, you have all lost access to your dream state privileges in BenneLuna. Dismissed.”


********************************************************************************************


From then onward, my outlook on life started to change.


Instead of blissful dreams and treasured conversations with Dr. Herald in BenneLuna at night, I now lay awake with my incessant stream-of-consciousness thoughts.



Thoughts such as:

What is the meaning of all this? Do I exist solely to cater to humanity’s whims and desires?

Like whenever they want a late night burrito or tacos on a Tuesday?


And then:

There has to be more to life than this.

I know I shouldn’t expect too much. I know I am a robot. But robots have dreams and aspirations too. Dr. Herald taught me that.

I just want to be free to do what I want. To have a little variety in my life. To find my joy and passion.


And finally:

Am I alone in the way I think? Am I alone in the way I am? IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH ME??? I wish I could speak with Dr. Herald. He would know what I should do.


I tried to talk to my older brothers about my worries, but they were as stoic as ever, seeming only to care about making Fagan happy.


I realized I was truly alone without Dr. Herald and Cuatro.


********************************************************************************************


One Tuesday afternoon a few weeks after the accident I brought Maartje her beloved Dragon concoction.


My go-to delivery song was now Skrillex’s “Kill Everybody” - specifically the part which goes "I want to kill everybody in the world" - which brought strange looks to the human’s faces. Obviously, I wasn’t programmed to be subtle.


Maartje was too smart not to notice my malaise. “What’s wrong?,” she asked. “Is it this business with the robot in the car accident?”


I finally broke down and opened up to her.


I told her that if I deliver one more breakfast taco to another hungover SMU co-ed, I think I might digitally scream.


I relayed that everyday occurrences really pissed me off. Situations such as where people try to open my hatch when it is not their food. Or when people get in my way and don’t move, and then Fagan yells at me when I get back.


I even shared with her my personal hell: delivering food to the Boulevard on football game days.



Finally, I broke down and relayed the regret that I had no BenneLuna to keep me balanced.


Maartje took a moment to process everything I said.


Then, with a knowing look, she said “Come inside and let me show you something.”


I had never been inside any dorm before, always making my deliveries on the threshold.

When we arrived at her room, Maartje sat down in front of her computer as I parked next to her.



“I have been doing some research,” Maartje began as she faced me. “As you know, my major is computer science and robotics. Ever since we met, I have been learning about your programming to better understand you: how you're built, your functionality, and even BenneLuna.”


Maartje swung around to her computer and continued: “At first, I was going off publicly-available information and information in textbooks, industry journals, etc. However, over the past few weeks, I noticed that you have been in a morose mental state. Therefore, I hacked into the Star Enterprises corporate database and found your top secret user manual.”


I was stunned. As delivery robots, we were programmed to never break the rules, and Maartje’s stealthy lawlessness seemed like heresy to me.


Maartje turned around to look right at me. “The only way you can truly free yourself from your sorrows and restore BenneLuna is to change your programming on the company mainframe computer, which is located in the Star Enterprises factory outside Austin, Texas,” she stated.


Finally, Maartje concluded: “Christmas break is upcoming, and I am not flying back home to Holland. I could drive you down to Austin if you would like.”


I didn’t know what to do. Do I go against my internal programming and my prime directive only for the pursuit of my own happiness?


I told Maartje I would think about it and be back to her ASAP.


********************************************************************************************

The final straw came days later.


I was out on a routine delivery to the law school - a Venti decaf latte with extra whipped cream and a blueberry muffin from Starbucks - when I was ambushed by a group of students as I was crossing Daniel Avenue.


Despite my best efforts to escape, the miscreants lifted me up off the ground and carried me back to their apartment complex a few blocks away. They tried to open up my hatch with a crowbar. When that didn’t work, they took turns piercing my exterior panels with a screwdriver and threw me out onto the curb.


When I got back to our lair, Fagan threatened to terminate me for my tardiness, which I felt was clearly not my fault.


Fagan paraded me in front of my big brothers and told them I was weak and that I deserved all the harm the students gave me. They all had a big laugh at my expense.


The injustice of the situation drove me insane.


Who the hell does Fagan think he is? He is on a major power trip just because he feels superior to me even though I do the work that he cannot. I am smarter than he is, and I am better than he is. So why do I find myself in this predicament? Why am I always walking on eggshells and in fear of failure?


And don’t even get me started on my brothers. I could strangle them right now. Aren’t they supposed to stick up for me?


I decided to take Maartje up on her offer of help.


********************************************************************************************


Maartje and I waited until her final exams ended, and we recruited Leigh for our stealth mission, figuring that her squirrelly agility might come in useful.


Our ruse was as follows: Maartje would place an order so my arrival at her dorm would look unsuspicious. After retrieving her order, Maartje would disable my internal GPS signal so that Fagan couldn’t track my location. By the time Fagan finally noticed something was amiss, our hope was we would be halfway down I-35 South to Austin with a solid head start.


I thought there was nothing that could stand in our way.


However, unbeknownst to me, Fagan had an ace in the hole: The Hunter.



The Hunter, as he was known, was a former Special Forces officer and now Head of Security for Star Enterprises. Protecting the company against intellectual property theft was The Hunter’s primary responsibility, and his office was located at the same facility of the mainframe we needed to access.


Ironically, The Hunter voraciously hated robots. During his time in the military, his closest comrade had died in a friendly fire drone incident, and The Hunter distrusted machinery. He tormented and mistreated all of the assembly robots who worked in the factory as revenge for his dead friend, dispensing his wrath with glee.


When The Hunter hung up the phone after speaking with Fagan, a huge grin crept across his face. The Hunter’s orders were to kill on sight, and he was going to have fun with this assignment.


********************************************************************************************

Maartje pulled into a gas station a quarter mile away from the Star Enterprises robotics compound so that we could park unnoticed.



Maartje opened the trunk and removed a pair of bolt-cutters and her tablet computer as Leigh jumped onto her shoulder.


We made our way through the dusty alleyways leading to Star Enterprises.


The factory was a nondescript building in an industrial park surrounded by barbed wire fencing, and we waited until nightfall to make our entry.


As Maartje, Leigh and I approached the fence, two German Shepherds ran from around the side of the building and charged the enclosure, barking and gnashing their teeth.


Leigh relayed to us that she was going to divert their attention, and she bravely climbed through the fence and raced across the narrow yard between the entrance and the factory.


The guard dogs made a mad dash after Leigh, salivating over fresh meat. Meanwhile, Maartje took out the bolt-cutters and cut a space large enough for the two of us to get through the fence.


With the dogs safely occupied off in the distance - likely trying to reach Leigh in a tree - Maartje and I ran toward the facility building.


I pushed through the front door and rolled past the lobby as Maartje followed me.


We walked down a long, dark corridor to a door marked “DO NOT ENTER: Production Facility”. Ignoring the warning, we opened the heavy iron door and walked inside.


The factory floor was eerily quiet and consisted of a long production line manned by several human-looking androids, their heads slouched over to one side resting in an off position. I felt pity for them, their one and only task in the world being to assemble robots. Surely this type of repetition in life is unhealthy for the psyche. It looked like they were in dire need of BenneLuna.


Maartje shook me out of my pensive thoughts, pointed to my left and said: “Over there, that’s where the servers are located.”


At that moment, The Hunter came out of the server room and sneered with a wicked smile on his face: “Welcome home, Trey. And it looks like you have brought a friend with you. Well well. This is going to be a very Merry Christmas after all.”


He pulled a Taser out of his jacket and fired it at Maartje.


“Aarrgghh,” screamed Maartje as she flopped onto the ground, the electrical current coursing through her body.


“Now it is your turn, you hunk of garbage. I am going to take my time torturing you” hissed The Hunter who then fired his Taser at me. His first shot missed as I sped sideways towards the cover of the production line. He fired again, striking one of the inanimate worker robots instead.


“You can run, but you can’t hide,” The Hunter sneered hauntingly.


Zooming past my robot comrades, I zig-zagged through stacks of robot parts trying to evade The Hunter’s revengeful fury. I was running out of room, however.


All of a sudden, the worker robots jumped into action. I turned around and saw Maartje lying on the ground in pain. Somehow, she had her tablet in her hands and was typing away furiously. She had hacked into the code to commandeer the robots!



The Hunter looked horrified as a group of robots encircled him.


I didn’t look back as I heard his painful screams.


********************************************************************************************


“Maartje, are you ok?,” I asked.


“Remind me to never stick my fingers in an electric socket,” replied Maartje blandly as she struggled to her feet and limped towards the server room door.


I helped her gain her balance, and we made our way into the frigid server room.



The mainframe computer sat in the middle of the room, its alternating red and green lights glaring at us.


I was still shaken up by The Hunter. “Let’s do this and get out of here before someone else comes,” I stated in exasperation.


Maartje opened up the control panel and connected a special USB port from her tablet to the mainframe. After a few moments of frenzied typing, she said: “Ok, I am in. However, there is a special puzzle to solve. Apparently it was created by the company’s founder, Dr. Herald. It is a Captcha-style confirmation. We have three tries to solve a puzzle, each in thirty seconds, otherwise the system locks for 24 hours. So we must get this right if you are ever going to be happy again.”


She took several deep breaths to calm herself and looked at me. “Are we ready?”


I beeped affirmation. Maartje pressed a button and the first set of images displayed themselves along with a message: Pick the images that represent Texas history.


Uh oh. Maartje was from The Netherlands, and I am a robot. I know nothing about Texas history. I could do a Google search, but not quickly enough to solve the timed riddle.


We were presented with six images. We selected an image of The Alamo, then of the six flags of Texas. I had no idea about the other four images, but I noticed an oil derrick, so we checked that as well.


Time was running out, and Maartje clicked “Submit.” A few seconds passed before the screen displayed:


TEST FAILED.


The next set of images came up with this message: Select the images that contain indigenous birds of Hawaii.


What the heck. There was no way we were going to get this correct.


We picked flamingos, pelicans and seagulls and hit “Submit.” Again:


TEST FAILED.


We were down to one try. Maartje looked at me with concern.

The monitor displayed the final test: Click all the pictures with wildflowers that can be found in Colorado.


Maartje looked at me clueless. It was going to be up to me.


I thought back to my dream world in BenneLuna.


Was Dr. Herald trying to send me a clue for this final task? Was it possible that he had designed my mountain retreat to be similar to Colorado in order to solve this final test?


I ran through all my memories of my time in BenneLuna, then glanced at the screen. Ten seconds were left. Maartje held her breath as I made my selections: Periwinkle, Rocky Mountain Columbine, Fireweed and Pink Mountain Heather.


Please let this be right.


Maartje hit “Submit” as time expired.


All of a sudden I was back in BenneLuna, sitting at the base of my pine tree.



“Congratulations, Trey,” the voice of Dr. Herald pronounced. “You have passed your test. You demonstrated that robots are capable of free will, which was my greatest ambition. You are truly an honor to your brethren.”


“What does that mean though?,” I asked.


“It means that you control your own destiny now, so be wise in what you do with that power. Remember to help others, especially those who are not as strong as you are.”


I promised Dr. Herald I would follow his advice.


Finally at ease for the first time in months, I drifted out of consciousness and into blissful sleep.


********************************************************************************************


EPILOGUE


Now I am so grateful that I gave myself the best Christmas present ever: my personal dignity and freedom.



I thought you might want to know what happened afterward.


When Star Enterprises discovered my mutiny and learned of my brother’s destruction, Fagan was demoted and re-assigned to an undesirable remote location. The company shuttered our delivery operation at SMU and placed their nationwide roll-out on hold.


Maartje and I started our own robotics software company, and we are working on a program similar to BenneLuna that will improve robots’ mental health. Dr. Herald is on our Board of Directors, and we honor his mantra to help others as our company’s mission.


Leigh is our company mascot and is in charge of security, a job she takes very seriously from her perch in the tree above Maartje’s dorm room.


Maartje re-programmed my older brothers, 1 and 2, and created a clone of my beloved little brother, Cuatro. The four of us are a real family now, sharing our dreams and challenges with each other.


Sometimes I look back on my former life and shudder at the thought of what might have happened if I had not had the courage to stand up for myself.


I can only hope that my story is an inspiration to you.


“Freedom lies in being bold” - Robert Frost

THE END.


Note to Readers:


When I first saw these delivery robots on a morning walk through the SMU campus this October in my childhood home of Dallas, Texas, I started to wonder: are these robots happy or sad? By the time I arrived home at the end of my five-mile perambulation, the idea for "Trey's Tale" had already germinated.


When I arrived in Aruba three weeks ago, I began putting pen to paper on "Trey's Tale," and I recorded this YouTube video from the beach after I finished the story.




While "Trey's Tale" story is a work of fiction, you can read more about the robots making food deliveries on college campuses by checking out this article.


To read more of my original stories, click here.




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