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Hi all. Here's a story called "Old Ones" that I wrote in early 2000. Since then it's been to pretty much every big and biggish market that seemed appropriate. When a new magazine would open, I would periodically bring this one out of mothballs, give the prose a once-over, and send it off, only to get it back in the mail again. I think it's a decent bit of Lovecraft-Lite-by-way-of-Pratt, but for whatever reason it's never clicked with an editor (in fact, it just got rejected this morning from the last market I'd decided to try). So here it is, for your reading pleasure! The story is over 6 years old, and I'm a vastly better writer than I was when I wrote it, so maybe it's just plain not good enough to sell. I've been strip-mining the best parts of it for other stories anyway, so bits of this may seem familiar to those wholly conversant with my oeuvre. But it's got spearguns and dark eldritch things and birthday parties and tentacles and one of my favorite last lines, etc., so I'm fond of it. Here goes.

Old Ones

Tim Pratt

"Old women don't have to be polite," Miriam said, squinting at her daughter. They sat at the wrought-iron patio table in Carol's and Tom's back yard, in the shade of a striped umbrella. "We've earned the right to be honest. Tom shouldn't be drinking gin and tonic at his daughter's birthday party, especially out of a little cup with balloons on it, and I told him so."

"Oh, mother," Carol said, trying to laugh. "It's not as if he drinks often."

Across the lawn, Tom flipped a hamburger on the grill and pressed it down, making the grease sizzle. He glared at Miriam, who raised an eyebrow, checked to be sure none of the children were looking her way, and flipped her middle finger up at Tom. She had arthritis, but it wasn't bad in the summer, and a little pain wouldn't stop her from telling her son-in-law what she thought of him.

Carol gasped and Tom looked away. Miriam lowered her finger and took a sip of lemonade, grimacing at the taste. Too sour, and at the same time too sweet. Her taste buds had gotten more sensitive as she aged.

"Mother," Carol said, when her gasping didn't elicit a response. "There are children here."

"My point exactly," Miriam said. "Tom reeks of gin. He could at least drink vodka. He never did know the value of discretion -- of course, if he knew how to be careful, we wouldn't have Darla, would we?"

Carol blinked, as if holding back tears, and Miriam felt a brief flash of shame.

"I'm sorry," she said. "I love Darla, and I'm glad she's here... but I do wish you'd had more choices. You married Tom so young."

"You married young," Carol said, eyes narrowed, that familiar tension line appearing in the middle of her forehead. "Younger than me."

Miriam shrugged. "That was a different time. And I divorced young, too."

"Which was just wonderful for me."

"Let's not ride this old merry-go-round, all right? Our claws come out too often when we get together. Let's enjoy the party."

After a moment Carol nodded, looking down at the ice swirling in her cup. "What did you get for Darla?"

"I had no idea what to get a ten-year old. I'm giving her money. She can buy -- " She broke off, frowning. "Did you hear that? Something rumbling?"

"Probably just a truck," Carol said, glancing toward the high wooden privacy fence. The fence was another of Tom's weekend projects, as if they did anything worth hiding from view. "We're closer to the highway than you'd think. You just can't see it from here."

The rumbling came again, louder this time, and Miriam's hands began to ache. Odd, that -- her hands seldom troubled her in summer, except during wet weather, and today was cloudless and bright. Miriam waited, and Carol cocked her head, too, but the sound didn't repeat itself. Miriam's hands kept aching, though, as if little bubbles of thick liquid were bursting in her joints. Just what I need, she thought. A new stage in my relationship with pain.

"I'm going inside for a glass of water," Miriam said, pushing herself out of the chair. "I'm too old for this syrupy kids' stuff."

"Oh, I can get it for --"

"No. It looks like Tom's ready to serve the savages their mad cow burgers. You'd better go hold his buns for him." Miriam went up the cedar steps to the deck, not bothering to touch the railing. Tom had nailed it on, probably while drunk, and she didn't trust it to support even her negligible weight. She slid open the glass door and went into the air-conditioned coolness of the tiled white kitchen. Miriam opened a cabinet and took down a glass carefully. Her arthritis wasn't bad enough to limit the use of her hands, not yet, but during her bad spells she couldn't grasp things tightly.

The doorbell rang. Miriam set the empty glass on the table, next to a stack of brightly wrapped gifts. She went through the living room curiously. Carol had said all the guests were here, so who could it be on a Saturday afternoon?

Miriam opened the door to a short, bald man wearing a bizarre blue outfit -- it took her a moment to realize it was a wetsuit, like divers wore. She glanced down to see if he had on flippers, but he didn't, just sandals.

"Ah," he said, clearing his throat. "Mrs. Wiley?"

"Miss Walker," she said. "Mrs. Wiley is my daughter." She looked him up and down. "This isn't a pool party. I don't know where you got the idea that it was."

"A party?" he said. He had a bushy mustache, as if compensating for the lack of hair on his head, and it twitched when he spoke.

"That explains all the cars," said a harsh voice from outside. A tall, broad-shouldered man with close-cropped blond hair bounded up the steps. He also wore a wetsuit. "Out of the way," he said, and tried to shoulder past Miriam.

She moved to block him, setting her lips grimly, and brought her knee up hard toward his crotch. She thought later that she should have screamed, too. It wouldn't have helped, really, but it would have been smarter.

The blond grunted and turned so her knee only hit his thigh. He grabbed her arms and pushed, and if he hadn't been holding her she would have fallen. He forced his way inside, and six other young men in wetsuits streamed after him. The bald man, older than the others, followed. He shut the door behind him, his mustache twitching.

The blond pushed Miriam toward the couch. She tottered, trying to maintain her balance, but fell onto the overstuffed cushions. Her initial outrage had been replaced by fear -- the blond could have broken her arms like twigs, and seeing the young men standing in Carol's spotless living room, so out of place, brought the seriousness of the situation home.

"You didn't have to shove her," the bald man said.

The blond didn't look at him. "How many are there?" he asked Miriam. "At this party?"

"A hundred," Miriam said, forcing a smile. She was too old, she'd been through too much in her 67 years, to go to pieces in front of this bastard. "It's my hundredth birthday, and there's one guest for every year. Would you like to see my letter of congratulations from the President?"

"You are a stupid woman," the man said, enunciating each word clearly. "You will answer me."

One of the other men had slipped into the kitchen, and now he returned. "Twelve adults, about that many children. There are... balloons and things." He sounded horrified.

"A birthday party," the blond said, voice flat, still looking at Miriam. "That's perfect. Wonderful intelligence-gathering, Dunlap. You said the family was never here on Saturday afternoons. They go to the park, or the zoo, you said. Family time, you said."

"They do," the bald man said. "Except this time."

"We'll just have to deal with it," the blond said. "If I'd known, I would have brought more guns." The other men drifted around the room, looking at photographs and potted plants, lifting magazines from the coffee table and putting them back. One stared intently at the antique clock on the mantel, watching the pendulum swing.

"What is this?" Miriam demanded. She'd read about home terrorism, men breaking in and raping and looting and taking hostages, but if that was the situation, why the wetsuits? There was no sizeable body of water for miles.

"This is an experiment," the bald man said. "I'm sorry for..." He trailed off when the blond turned to look at him.

"It's not an experiment," he said. He smiled for the first time, an expression so twisted it made Miriam wish he'd stayed blank-faced. "It's a ritual. And it will change everything."

Cultists, Miriam thought. Worse than terrorists. She thought of Jim Jones, and Heaven's Gate, and those Japanese people who'd released nerve gas on the subway. She knew she should have been afraid for the children, and she was -- but mostly she was afraid for herself. That was the nature of the human animal, even at her age, to think first of self-preservation. She thought about grabbing the blond's testicles and twisting until something broke -- that wetsuit couldn't protect him very well -- but her hands flared with pain as soon as she thought of clenching them. She didn't know if she felt desperate enough to try something like that anyway. She'd administered more than her share of tongue-lashings in her time, but physical violence was alien to her.

"Let's get the weapons," the blond said, "and move those people into the house."


The cultists had one handgun, and several spear guns. The latter looked absurd, long metal tubes with gleaming barbed heads sticking out, but they would be lethal, she was sure.

One of the young men, the only one wearing glasses, fumbled with his spear gun and almost dropped it.

"Careful, you idiot," the blond said.

"Ryan, I still don't see why we need these weapons --" Dunlap began.

"Because of what might be guarding the Temple," the blond said. "Those underwater aborigines of yours. They might not take kindly to our usurping their god, but the spears should persuade them."

Miriam frowned as the one with glasses and Dunlap exchanged worried looks. Dissension among the cultists? Two sects in opposition? That made it more likely people would be hurt.

"Dunlap, you and your little catamite stay here. My men will take care of the partygoers."

Dunlap nodded, and the blond walked quietly into the kitchen, followed by his five men.

Miriam tried to think of something to say. If she didn't do something, her fear would get the best of her, and she wouldn't be worth anything. She was too old to go through something like this. She didn't think she could stand it.

Glasses, still holding his spear gun awkwardly, peered into the corner cabinet. Carol kept her knick-knacks there, and the clay figurines Darla had made the year before at camp, and a couple of genuine antiques, including a piece of scrimshaw that had been in the family forever.

"Professor!" Glasses said. "Look at this!"

Dunlap went to the cabinet and whistled. He opened the door, reached in reverently, and lifted out a piece of white stone the size of two fists clenched together.

"Is it... genuine?" Glasses said.

Dunlap turned toward Miriam, holding the stone before him like an offering. "Where did this come from?"

Miriam wrinkled her nose. She'd seen the thing before. It was a fragment of sculpture, part of a misshapen head. Its bulging, fishlike eyes looked in two directions at once, and its wide toad's lips puckered as if for a kiss. The back of the head was sheared off and rough, where it had broken away from a larger piece. "My son-in-law found it in the back yard while digging post holes. He likes to brag that it's pre-Columbian."

Dunlap blinked at her, and under the bushy awning of his mustache his lips twitched into a smile. "Well, yes. I should say so." He looked at Glasses. "I suppose the idea of a dig is a bit redundant, but we should hold on to this. Who knows what Ryan would make of it? He'd want to put it in some shrine, we'd never see it again."

"Keep moving," Ryan boomed from the kitchen.

Dunlap looked around, then shoved the piece of broken statuary between the couch cushions next to Miriam.

"You'll help me," Miriam said instantly, "or I'll tell the big man what you're hiding from him."

Dunlap stared at her, his hand still between the cushions, eyes bulging like the statue's, but in disbelief. "What do you think I can do for you?"

"Talk to me. Explain things."

Then Miriam's family and their friends went past down the hall, each briefly visible as they passed the living room door. None of them even glanced inside.

The children were crying, but not loudly. Carol's hands fluttered, and her eyes were wide and empty. Tom held a festive paper cup in a deathgrip. Ryan's followers herded them along, saying "Come on, come on, no one's going to get hurt, into the big bedroom."

When the last of the party guests went past, Ryan entered the living room. "You too, old woman."

Miriam moved her hand, slowly so as not to stir the pain, and touched her breastbone. "I can't," she said, voice trembling. It didn't take much effort to manufacture the tremor. "I've got a heart condition, and all this excitement..."

"Old woman," Ryan said ominously.

"It's true," Dunlap said. "She's frail. I've examined her."

"I didn't know you were a medical doctor. In addition to being a washed-up archaeologist. Your mysteries keep unfolding, professor."

Dunlap straightened, and for a moment looked almost haughty. He might have been an impressive man, once, Miriam thought, before whatever happened broke him. "I know what I'm talking about. Anyway, why risk it? We don't want a dead body on our hands. She's an old woman. What can she do?"

Miriam did her best to look frail and harmless, which also didn't take much effort, to her irritation.

"Fine," Ryan said. "But you're in charge of looking after her. That means you can't go below." He smiled, showing all his teeth.

Dunlap swallowed and glanced at Miriam. "All right."

One of the young men returned. "They're all in the master bedroom. There's a bathroom in there, so none of them need to come out. There's security screens, and none of the windows look out on to the backyard, so it's secure. Thompson's guarding the door." He frowned. "We're not going to hurt them, are we?"

Ryan shook his head. "You still don't understand, do you? You heard the old man in Portsmouth, you've seen Dunlap's artifacts, and the segments of the well, but you still don't understand. In another hour, it won't matter if we hurt them or not. The god will come, and everything will change."

His certainty chilled Miriam. What would he do when his expected Apocalypse or revelation didn't come?

The converse of that thought disturbed her even more.

What would happen if it did come?


Dunlap sat in an overstuffed chair across from the couch, spear gun across his knees. All the others, even Glasses, were out of the room. Some were in the backyard with a compass and surveying equipment, while others were out front, "unloading the gear" as Ryan said. Miriam could hear the children in the master bedroom crying.

"This whole part of the country used to be underwater," Dunlap said. "Beneath the ocean. That bit of statuary I hid in the couch dates back to that time, and comes from a city under the waves."

"Are you talking about Atlantis?" Miriam asked in a careful, humor-the-lunatic tone.

Dunlap laughed. "Atlantis sank, Miss Walker. The place we're looking for was built underwater in the first place." He shifted the spear gun, looking at the sharp tip. "We're on the cusp of... let's call it a conjunction. In time, and space, and other dimensions. A rare alignment that will allow us to see things as they were. You might have felt something already, tremors, as ancient tidal forces try to cope with the fact that there's no sea here anymore, only solid ground."

Miriam remembered the rumbling and nodded uncertainly.

"I'm an archaeologist, or I was, and for this chance to see the past, to see a time before mankind even existed, when other civilizations rose from the slime and coral to build cities and fight wars and worship..." He glanced toward the front door. "For that opportunity, I've aligned myself with dangerous men. Fanatics. They had information I needed, and vice versa. For me, and my student, this is a scientific endeavor, albeit one that most of my former colleagues would scoff at. For Ryan and his men... this is a religious rite. Do you believe in God, Miss Walker?"

"Of course," she said, though she didn't think about God much. Sometimes when her hands hurt very badly, as they did now, she prayed for ease, promising her soul and anything else in exchange for relief.

Dunlap nodded. "Ryan and his men believe in God, too, but not the same God you do. Their god is sleeping, they believe... but soon we'll be able to reach a time and place where he is awake, ruling from a temple, receiving sacrifices from his followers."

"That bit of stone... is that an image of this god?" She shifted on the cushion, made uncomfortable by the proximity of the stone fragment.

"Oh, no," Dunlap said. "That head is only a depiction of one of the god's original followers, the undersea beings I was talking about earlier. I've seen other, similar fragments... the fish-faced things were vain. They liked to make images of themselves." He laughed. "They were boastful, too. Some of the carvings show them hunting giant prehistoric sea creatures, with the dinosaurs depicted only a little larger than themselves!"

Miriam digested that and decided the god interested her more than its followers. "Do you believe in this god?"

Dunlap looked at her as if she were mad. "Of course not. Ryan and his men are wrong... but they'll realize that soon enough, when they seek their god and find only empty temples, just like the churches we have. Still, the beings who worshipped that god... they may well be like gods to us."

The front door banged open and the young men came in, carrying long, curved pieces of white stone. The segments were carved all over with strange bas-reliefs, squiggly shapes like tentacles and jointed legs. The men carried the stones through the living room and into the backyard.

"Soon," Dunlap muttered.

The men tromped back through and returned with scuba gear and more stones. Ryan came last, wearing an air tank on his back and flippers. His sweaty face shone. "Ten minutes, Dunlap, and we'll have access to the temple of the living god. It's a shame you'll be here, tending to the old woman."

"I think she's well enough to go into the yard," Dunlap said, glancing at Miriam.

Ryan narrowed his eyes. "Then she's well enough to --"

He broke off when a rumbling came, more than a sound this time, a physical vibration. Pictures rattled on the wall. Muffled shouts came from the bedroom, and a pounding on the wall. The guard yelled at the prisoners to shut up.

"It doesn't matter," Ryan said when the tremor subsided. He laughed. "Bring her, why not?" He hurried out of the room.

"It's happening," Dunlap said. He grabbed Miriam's arm, too hard. A jolt of pain lanced from her fingers up to her elbow, and she cried out. Dunlap didn't seem to notice. Miriam went along with him, and would have even if he hadn't pulled her. She wanted to believe Dunlap was as mad as the others, just in a different way, but the rumbling, and her hands, aching as they usually did before a window-rattling thunderstorm, gave her pause.

She followed Dunlap into the backyard, where the humid air hit her like a wet dishcloth, and watched the men lay the curved stones down on the grass.


All together, the curved stones fit together to form a ring ten feet across. The men stood awkwardly, holding their spear guns, looking into the contained circle of grass. Glasses stood by the grill and munched a hamburger, looking at his watch. "Now," he said around a mouthful.

Miriam, standing with Dunlap by the umbrella, stood on tiptoes to look.

Nothing happened.

After a minute, Ryan turned toward Dunlap, his face dangerously blank.

"The calculations might not be perfect," Dunlap said, backing up a step.

Relief flooded Miriam. There would be no conjunction, no fish-men or their strange gods. That bit of statue was nothing portentous, just --

"Look!" one of the fanatics said, pointing into the stone ring.

The ground rumbled, as if a giant were rolling over in its sleep far underground. Chunks of earth and grass inside the circle began to rise and break apart as water seeped from below, slowly at first, then faster, until clods of dirt floated and bobbed.

And then sank, leaving a pool of black water contained by white stone.

"The well is open," Ryan said solemnly. "The way is clear." He raised his fists to the sky and howled. His followers shook their spear guns and shouted with him.

Miriam cried out, too, but from pain. Her hands curled into stiff claws. Her bones felt like they'd been bored out and filled with molten lead. The pain overwhelmed everything, even fear. She blinked away tears, and the pain faded a bit, enough for her to think, Please, God, make it stop, I'll do anything if you make it stop.

Dunlap, oblivious to Miriam's distress, moved closer to the pool. Miriam gritted her teeth and followed.

The water was dark, and it rippled. Miriam thought it should overflow the rim of the well, but it didn't, though it came all the way to the top. The fanatics put on their facemasks and checked their diving equipment. Glasses did the same, though he hadn't joined the howling.

"I'll bring you back a chunk of stone, Professor," Ryan said. "Along with the god's blessing." He stepped to the stone lip, carrying a spear gun and an underwater flashlight, then dropped into the water with barely a splash. His followers did the same. Glasses hesitated, glancing at Dunlap, and the professor waved him on. He slipped into the well, too.

Miriam looked at the water until the ripples subsided. "How long will this thing stay open?"

Dunlap answered her in a vague voice, gazing into the water. "As long as the segments of the well stay in place, as far as we know. If I could get a crane, and bring up the artifacts... but no, it's better to study them in context..."

"Forever?" Miriam demanded. "How long do you intend to hold us hostage? How long do you think it will be before we're missed?"

Dunlap kept looking at the water. "Oh, once Ryan and his people realize there's no god down there, and I get word to the University, I'm sure everything will work out..."

"God or not, you said there are things down there."

"Well, yes, but they're not amphibians, they have to stay below, and anyway they have a culture, I'm sure they'll be reasonable..."

People weren't reasonable, Miriam knew, especially when it came to their gods -- what could they expect from these alien beings, with their strange altars?

"This is a doorway to the past," Dunlap went on dreamily. "We can explore our planet as it was eons ago. This is the most important accomplishment in human --"

"The fish people," Miriam interrupted. "You said they made sacrifices. What kind of --"

The waters bubbled furiously, coinciding with a redoubling of the pain in Miriam's hands. She bent at the waist, clutching her hands to her stomach, but she kept her eyes on the pool.

Over the next several minutes, things began to rise from the churning waters.

Scales the size of dinner places. Chunks of bloody flesh, smelling like rotten crabmeat. Then something like two webbed, severed fingers broke the surface, bones poking from their ragged ends, and Miriam stifled a scream.

Each finger was as long as a human arm.

The fish-men were vain, Dunlap had said. Boastful. Depicting themselves nearly the size of prehistoric sea monsters. But it hadn't been boasting at all.

Dunlap looked at her, wide-eyed. "I -- I --"

More things came to the surface. Blue things.

Bits of people, still in the shreds of their wetsuits.

Dunlap whimpered. Miriam backed away. The monster-fingers were bad. These human remains were somehow even worse.

When something burst from the water and clambered over the lip, they both shrieked, and Dunlap dropped his spear gun.

But it was only Ryan, his weapon gone, his suit torn through and bloody in places. He looked at them for a long moment, crouched and dripping on the grass, before speaking.

"The god was sleeping in their time, too," he said, and then, horribly, giggled. His mind was gone, Miriam knew, reduced to splinters and spasms and hysteria. "Sleeping. But we woke him, and he demanded sacrifices."

Something burst from the water, moving too fast for Miriam to register more than a green blur, and swept Ryan bodily back into the well.

Then nothing happened for a long moment, just flesh and scales bobbing on the surface, and Dunlap and Miriam standing frozen. "We have to go," Dunlap said at last, voice breaking on the last word. "We can't --"

The green thing lashed out of the water again, and this time Miriam got a better look at it. She closed her eyes and fell to her knees, whimpering. Just that glimpse was enough to make her mind bend like a board bowing under great weight, and if she kept looking, she feared her mind would snap.

She'd seen a tentacle, of sorts, sweeping toward Dunlap. But instead of suckers, the tentacle was covered with mouths, rubbery lips and triangular teeth, and inside some of the mouths there were eyes, sky-blue and algae-green. Miriam knew the thing wasn't human, that she couldn't presume to read the expression in a god's eyes, but to her they seemed not angry, or vengeful, but only curious.

She opened her eyes when the splashing stopped. One of Dunlap's sandals floated next to the severed fingers.

Miriam sat on the grass for a while, aware only of the agony in her hands and the silvery brittleness of her mind. Her thoughts came together slowly, like rocks drifting down and settling on the ocean floor.

The thing could reach out again, and there was no one left to take but her. And then the house, with her family, and their friends, and the last fanatic guarding them...

Then what? How far could those tentacles reach?

And maybe the god's followers weren't amphibious... but what about the god itself?

Miriam crawled across the grass on her knees and elbows, her hands awkward, upraised knots of fire. Oh, God, she thought, I'll do anything if you make it stop. She didn't know if she meant the pain or the situation or both.

She made it to the edge of the well. The dark water lapped against the rim.

I'm too old, I'm too old, too old for this, she thought, finding no sense in the words, only the comfort of a prayer chanted against the dark.

She shoved the burning lumps of her hands under one of the stone segments, weeping and biting her lip. Ah, it hurt, like grasping knives, like acid splashing.

She shoved with her shoulders and arms, trying to lift the stone and break the circle. She couldn't grasp, her fingers wouldn't close -- this was cruder, like bulldozing.

The rumbling came again, and the tentacle lashed out -- she felt the wind of its passage ruffle her hair. Miriam shrieked, and clamped her eyes shut, and shoved as hard as she could.

The stone moved, and her hands... She'd done something to them. Something ruinous and permanent and so painful that her vision filled with a flash of white.

I'll do anything, God, she thought, almost incoherently.

The stone fell into the water, spraying droplets onto her face.

The tentacle retracted, whipping back --

-- and brushed Miriam's cheek, the touch smooth and slick and cold.

The pain in her hands vanished.

Miriam could feel the hurt places where her knuckles had scraped the stone, but her arthritis was gone, no wet bubbles breaking in her knuckles, no knots of flame. She opened her eyes, physically euphoric from the cessation of pain, terrified and shaking from the god's touch.

The pool was gone. The broken circle contained nothing but damp, bare earth.

She rose unsteadily, moving her hands slowly, bending each finger in turn.

Perfect. Perfect. The air was dry again. The sun shone.

Miriam went toward the house, then paused, looking down. She bent to pick up Dunlap's dropped spear gun. There was still the last fanatic to deal with, the one guarding the bedroom. He had a spear gun, too, but Miriam wasn't worried. She would come upon him by surprise and fire, pin him by the throat to the very door he guarded.

Miriam stopped in mid-step, frowning. She probed gently at that thought, considering the grisly image her mind had produced. The spear-shaft sticking out of the guard's throat, his blood spraying in a fan across the door.

The image didn't repulse her. Nor did it attract her.

It intrigued her, slightly. Enough to make it worth exploring.

She moved on again, flexing her hands around the spear gun. She'd kill the guard, and rescue her family and their friends, she supposed. She found the idea of releasing them distasteful. Her daughter would be hysterical, the children would cry, and Tom would strut and poke things and act as if he were in charge. Her explanations would be ignored, taken for senility. They were all so young, so prideful, so sure of themselves, especially Tom.

She could kill him, too. She considered the notion as she would consider a multi-faceted jewel, examining it from every angle. She didn't see anything wrong with it. It could be interesting.

She went up the cedar steps to the deck, and paused before the sliding doors. The sunlight on the glass gave her a clear view of her reflection. She looked at her eyes for a moment. They weren't full of fear, or anger, or any strong emotion at all.

Just curiosity, and mild curiosity at that.

Anything, God, she thought, and slid open the door.

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