Category Archives: Brain From Outer Space

Story Behind the Story: Cover Stories

Writing the final story in Atoms for Peace posed the same problem as Who Watches the Watchmen. I was still planning to start Brain From Outer SpaceInstruments of Science with the events in so I didn’t want to advance the timeline any further. I was figuring how to do that, and then I thought of Kurt Busiek’s and Alex Ross’s Marvels.

Marvels tells the story of the Marvel Universe through the eyes of Phil, a photojournalist. He witnesses the debut of the Human Torch in the Golden Age. Years later, he’s in New York, working for the Bugle, when the Silver Age is in full swing. He sees the Avengers battle the Masters of Evil, the Sentinels hunting mutants, the arrival of Galactus and Spider-Man’s failed attempt to save Gwen Stacey from death. But he’s seeing it as an outsider, a regular guy. He has no idea what’s going on in the heroes’ minds, what mutants are really like, or exactly how the Fantastic Four defeated Galactus.

Yeah, I said to myself, that would work. Show life as a Science Investigator from an outside viewpoint, rather than the people who sleep, breathe and eat the fight against rogue science. The protagonist of Cover Stories became Cassie Sato (sister to FBI agent Harry Sato), freelance journalist. Atlanta is doing some big celebration of Gwen Montgomery’s father so Cassie pitched the Atlanta Journal a profile on “Mile High” Montgomery’s daughter, the science investigator. We open with Cassie along with Steve and Gwen on an investigation that turns nasty. Then she gets to talk to Claire, Dani, visit the local nightclub the Tower of Mordor, get Gwen’s thoughts on why she does what she does and watch the other agents at work (“A couple of desks down, a fat guy nicknamed Slim flipped through a file about a lab in Ojai that had dissolved overnight. His partner, an Italian woman named DiNaldi, was trying to calm a hysterical leather-jacketed teenager claiming his “chick” had only broken up with him because she’d been mind-controlled.”)

Cassie turned out nowhere near as tough as Dani or Gwen. Which is cool; not everyone’s suited for the front lines of a war. She’s a competent writer, dogged in getting the story, more than a little claustrophobic. Talking to Gwen and Steve in Science Investigations underground base makes her more than a little nervous.

And there my saga ends until I try to replot Brain From Outer Space and get it right.

#SFWApro. Cover by Alex Ross, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Story Behind the Story: Instruments of Science

In hindsight, the tenth story in Atoms for Peace is an odd duck.

This is the one I wrote as the first chapter of Brain From Outer Space, so I originally conceived it as introducing readers to this world. It’s a morning Science Investigations briefing at the southwest branch of the Technology and Science Commission; Nate Strawn hands out the assignments, mostly dealing with a new panic about “ceecees” (carbon copies, AKA pod people). Sure they’ve had panics before, but learning the ETs this time were actually marrying human women? Real scary!

This serves to set up the premise, plus introduce Steve (fully recovered from Roboticus breaking his arm), Gwen, Jo and Trueblood, plus a couple of other agents to round things out (I never want to write undifferentiated crowds of supporting characters). There are also some rogue science cases to deal with: strange lights outside a desert shack, an attempted theft of Edward Teller’s notes for a super-bomb (in this timeline, knowing the horrible effects of radioactive mutation, the H-bomb never got into development), a werewolf in a girl’s dormitory, some prostitutes apparently being used as guinea pigs. And several impossible deaths at a high powered commercial laboratory in Yuma. Steve and Gwen get assigned that one.

The odd part is that this is the 10th story in the book, so nobody really needs an introduction to any of this. I rewrote the story to eliminate any info-dumping readers would already know and approached it as showing a typical day for Science Investigators. As such, I think it worked.

Dani only appears off-camera, talking to Steve on his wrist-radio. In the original chapter one we got to see her day, but that made things a little too crowded for a 5,000-word story. I cut that, and cut a scene with the Science Police setting up the main plotline. I also dropped a reference to Steve finally finding a lead on his missing brother Tommy.

All of which means I’ll need a new opening chapter for Brain if I want it to be continuous with Atoms for Peace (and I do) as I’ve pruned out all the hooks that would lead the reader onward. Still, I think Instruments of Science works as a short, perhaps better than in the book, so I can’t complain.

Big Pulp accepted last two stories, which I’ll get to over the next couple of weeks, but never posted them, so Who Watches the Watchmen and Cover Stories will give you something you can’t get on the website.

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Story Behind the Story: Mayhem Ex Machina

I conceived the ninth story in Atoms for Peace to lay the groundwork for the Steve/Dani relationship in Brain From Outer Space. Specifically, as they’ve been together for several years, and they’re in love, why aren’t they married?

Of course there’s lots of reasons that could be the case, but I took the one that promised the most conflict: Steve’s proposed, Dani’s said no. She still wants to be with him, and she’s not saying she’ll never, ever say yes, but every time he asks, it’s no. Partly that’s because Steve wants them both off the front lines, so they can live to raise children, and Dani likes her work as a medic. Partly classism: she’s upper-class Boston and Steve’s blue collar. Dani’s not entirely sure she wants to get married at all, but she’s very sure she doesn’t want to break up with Steve. So they’re a couple, but with a big elephant in the room. My original plan for the novel would have her say the L word by the ending, but not the M word.

In Mayhem Ex Machina Steve proposes for the first time and Dani panics. She can’t say yes, but will he end things if she says no? The story shows (I hope) that they make a good couple (I think Blood and Steel already showed that) and that Steve respects what she does: when she has to make a triage decision to help someone else, he understands.

But of course this is a series about my heroes battling 1950s SF-movie-style menaces, so I needed a menace. I’d included a scene in Brain where Gwen deactivates a robot threatening a black LA neighborhood, and initially decided to work it into this story as the B plot. Only when I looked at the scene, it came across very White Savior-ish, so I decided no. Instead I brought back FBI agents Harry Satao and Mickey Moon from Hunting Hidden Faces and switched the setting to LA’s Little Tokyo. And rather than a robot built with a white supremacist agenda, I reinvisioned him as a well-meaning idiot. In his big scene, he tells Mickey and Harry that yes, he built a super-robot (modeled on the ET tech from the film Kronos) without any research permit because the government just wouldn’t let him have one. But his ideas were so awesome, he just couldn’t pass them up! He’s raised the robot as a kind of surrogate son, but unfortunately his little boy has run away and it’s getting into trouble. And here come Dani and Steve, wandering right into its path …

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Story Behind the Story: Hunting Hidden Faces

I wonder if Hunting Hidden Faces, the sixth story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook), doesn’t work better in book form than as one short story in a series.

The first five stories were all interconnected, but they could pretty much stand on their own. This one is a lead-in to number seven, The Mind That Wanted the World, so it’s Part One of Two. It’s also much more a setting story  than plot or character driven. It has several different subplots and a larger cast than usual, which I used to explore the alternate timeline.

It’s 1957, and America knows that along with physical invasions, we have to worry about pod people, aliens who appear to be perfectly human, but aren’t. As I don’t want to infringe on Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, my terms are ceecees (carbon copy people) and pups (people controlled by alien puppet masters). The burden of investigating potential ceecee and pup cases (“My girlfriend would never have broken the engagement if she was still human!”) falls on Science Investigations because nobody wants the work.

Just as our 1950s had investigators hunting down Communists and gays in government (check out the excellent The Lavender Scare to learn more on the latter), so Steve and Gwen, along with their colleagues have to hunt down whoever gets the TSC’s Senate overlords upset. Reds, gays, beatniks, civil-rights activists. Just to see if maybe they’re really outside agitators from way, way outside. It’s a waste of time, mostly, but it keeps the politicians happy.

Against this backdrop I introduced several new characters. Jo Davies is a British detective who moved out to the US after a nervous breakdown from one particularly nasty ET case. Her partner, Trueblood, is a “wolf” as they used to call guys who hit on women non-stop. He’s also psychic, a little: the LSD agents take (if they’re pupped, the puppeteer won’t be able to keep control when they’re acid-tripping) opened the doors of perception, giving him occasional flashes.

Harry Sato and Mickey Moon are FBI agents working for the Science Police. It’s a new branch that specializes in criminals using high-tech weapons or stolen alien artifacts. It overlaps some with Science Investigations, which is intentional; the FBI heads don’t want the new agency stealing too much of their thunder. J. Edgar Hoover is no longer in charge, having died in the Martian invasion. That will keep the agency from becoming quite as monstrous as it did in our timeline.

Mickey is a tall Texas drink of water. He’s clean-cut, straight arrow and saving himself for marriage. Harry is Nisei (first generation Japanese-American), a former resident of the WW II internment camps and later a member of the Nisei battalions in WW II. He’s older and little savvier than Mickey. He’s gay, but it doesn’t figure into the story at all; I want to work it into Brain From Outer Space but I’m not sure how yet.

Like I said, it’s a little aimless compared to most of this collection, but I think it’s still interesting and readable.

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The Story Behind the Story: The Spider Strikes

The Spider Strikes is the third story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook). Like the others in the collection, I wrote it with an eye to setting things up for (the still-unfinished) Brains From Outer Space. Specifically, this would introduce Steve Flanagan, my primary protagonist, and introduce him to Gwen Montgomery who appeared in the initial story in the collection. It proved a lot of work, because there was a lot to introduce.

For one thing, in the two years since Atoms for Peace, Gwen’s becoming a science investigator for the Technology and Science Commission. The federal government has decided that to avoid the kind of mad-science research that figured in the first story (or in movies such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Fiend Without a Face), researchers must apply for a federal license. The TSC reviews them, deciding thumbs up or down. This can be based on potential risks (nuclear research is very unlikely to pass muster) or the character of the applicant (will they follow the rule). The guys behind the TSC (Senators Jack Kennedy and Richard Dorman pushed the bill that created it) realized that some researchers might just go ahead unlicensed, or start exceeding parameters once they got the license. Someone needed to investigate and prevent that, so the TSC suddenly acquired an investigating arm.

While I don’t go into a lot of detail, I had to explain the basics. And then there was Steve, whose backstory is a lot more complicated than Gwen’s or Dani Taylor’s. He and his brother Tommy grew up in a tenement, got taken away by social workers (this was largely accepted practice until decades later when it began affecting middle-class Americans) and raised in an orphanage (their parents, by the 1950s, are both dead). Tommy was a good, quiet kid; Steve pushed back against bullies, including the bullies on the staff. He got beat up a lot and went for  couple of short stays in reform school. After he realized the orphanage doctor was putting something bad in the shots he was giving the kids, he tried to smash all his equipment. That got him a long stay (what was in the injections? Well, that’s a key part of Brain).

Tommy got adopted by two Soviet agents who were caught working against the country. He disappeared. Steve, now all grown up, is determined to find him, somehow. While following up a trail in Philadelphia, he winds up helping Gwen against a killer robot spider. He doesn’t know it but his life path just changed …

One of the reasons Gwen recruits Steve to help her is that while some branches of Science Investigations allow women agents, they all insist on pairing them with men who can handle “the rough stuff.” Gwen is perfectly capable of handling trouble, but rules are rules; with her partner hospitalized early on, the only available alternative is a sexual harasser, so no. Telling her boss she’s found someone to handle the “rough stuff” so the harasser can stick to his current investigation solves that problem.

Throughout the book I’ve tried to acknowledge the sexism of the time without making it unpleasant to read. Hopefully I found the sweet spot (I feel better after reading  Robert Jackson Bennett’s argument that “realism” isn’t a good reason to show lots of rape).

*A minor alt.history point is my reference to the computer company Eckert-Mauchly. It’s named for the inventors who built ENIAC, the original computer, but wound up losing control and credit for their work. In this timeline they hung on to both. Philadelphia’s “Engineers’ Row” will wind up becoming the Silicon Valley of this timeline.

*A true history detail is the derogatory “slopie” for the North Koreans (Steve’s a Korean War vet). It occurred to me people might think it’s some kind of mutant, but no, just racist slang of the day.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, rights are mine.

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The Story Behind the Story: Atoms for Peace

Woot! Atoms for Peace and Other Stories is available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and other retailers such as Barnes & Noble as an ebook. Unlike Atlas Shagged, the stories in this one are all tied together, part of an alternative 1950s in which movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Creature With the Atom Brain, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them! were all real. While I’ve covered most of the stories in early Story Behind the Story blog posts, I started this blog after the first story had come out. So here’s the odd tale of how the book and the first story came to be.

Back in the 1990s, Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, declassified the reports about U.S. radiation experiments on unwitting patients (they weren’t told what the doctors were doing, or given an option to consent). That started me thinking (at least I think so, the exact chain of reasoning is a bit blurry after so long) about how that mirrored so many SF films of the 1950s, like I Was a Teenage Werewolf (and gives the lie to every How To Write SF article that declares mad scientists experimenting on innocent people could never happen in real life). And then it hit me: what would the US be like if those movies had been real? If by the end of the 1950s we’d been under attack by multiple aliens, radioactive mutants, pod people and reanimated dinosaurs?

Hmmm …well scientific research would be tightly regulated, of course. With investigators to double-check nobody was doing illegal experiments on the sly. The National Guard would be busy fighting mutant horrors. And maybe we’d have made it into space years earlier than we did. Now if you throw the effects of one of those radiation experiments into the mix …

I liked it. But back then I had a day job, so The Brain From Outer Space took a long time to work on. Finally I had it in reasonably satisfactory shape around 2008 or 9. Then it hit me the first chapter, written to show investigators Steve Flanagan and Gwen Montgomery on a case and so introduce my world, worked pretty well as a standalone short story. So I tweaked it a little and sent it out.

The Big Pulp website liked it and accepted it. Then they suggested I write a series of stories leading up to it, showing how my world came to be so different. I jumped at the chance. The stories are still up there, if you’re curious. Unfortunately some of the elements and relationships in the book no longer fit the backstory. I’d also discovered problems in the story that really needed fixing. The book needed a major overhaul … and to date, I haven’t been able to fix it.

But the stories are still worth it.

The first story, Atoms for Peace, takes it’s name from the post-war slogan: sure, the a-bomb was terrifying but nuclear energy, turned to peaceful uses, was our friend! Wonderful things would come from it (check out the book Nukespeak for a look at the sunny nuclear utopianism of the era). The Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) was supposed to both regulate and promote the industry; it usually came down on the “promote” side and did its best to minimize the risks of radiation.

I decided that would be the basis for my story: the first documented case of “rogue science,” using ordinary people as guinea pigs. My protagonist would be Southerner Gwen Montgomery, former OSS agent. As the story opens in 1954, Gwen thinks she’s done with adventuring. But then she found the strange half-man half-lizard under the street light …

It’s a good story and I think it’s a good book. It’s a lot whiter than I’d do it today (I hope), but I know from Southern Discomfort that simply switching some of my characters to black or Latino would take lots of work, especially in a world where segregation is still the norm. As I wrote this to reuse old work, not start fresh, I kept it as it was. Though I’m pleased with my female representation as Dani, Kate Meara, Gwen and Claire all get a good share of the adventure.

I’ll have more to say about the book next week. Hopefully you’ll all have bought it by then.

#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, all rights are mine.

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Iron, Blood and Backstory

Unless we’re writing about the birth of time, our worlds always have a backstory. There are several different ways to deal with it.

The backstory is reality. For example in Fritz Leiber’s The Wanderer, a planet-sized space shape crosses hyperspace and emerges in orbit around Earth. The moon is ripped apart, tidal waves and earthquakes ravage the world and the characters struggle to survive. Plus, of course, there are aliens.

Up until the starship appeared, the world was normal. We don’t need to know what it was like before the start of the story because we were living in it (we do get some backstory later on the spaceship and its inhabitants). The backstory is irrelevant.

I come close to this with Atoms For Peace: even though the world is slightly off-kilter (recovering from a Martian invasion) it still seems like that was one crazy fluke. Then Gwen Montgomery discovers a mutated lizard man dead in her street …

The protagonist is a newbie. This is one specfic uses a lot: the POV character is thrust into a new situation knowing nothing about the backstory. This excuses them asking constant questions and sitting through infodumps in response. This is painful to read if the info dump isn’t interesting (it usually isn’t). One of the things I hated about Charles Stross’s The Family Trade was the constant stream of infodumping directed at the protagonist. It doesn’t have to be a problem, though, if it’s done well: Mur Lafferty introduced a newbie to the supernatural world in The Shambling Guide to New York City without leaving me feeling dumped on.

In media res. This is the one I tend toward in my own writing — the protagonists aren’t newbies and whatever’s going on has been going on a while.

I’m not so much talking about starting in the middle of the action (which I do sometimes) as much as establishing that the weirdness pre-existed the events of the book. In No One Can Slay Her, for instance, magic’s a part of every day life in the 1950s. Jennifer Armstrong has been dealing with supernatural threats since her teen years (her wyrd guarantees it); her Beatnik wife Kate has the gift of wild magic. When I wrote Brain From Outer Space (the as yet uncompleted novel that inspired the Atoms for Peace stories), alien invasions, pod people, mutants and mad science were just “Tuesday” for my cast.

It’s common in urban fantasy, which Gail Z. Martin writes, so it’s not surprising she and her husband went that route in their steampunk fantasy Iron & Blood (cover by Michael Kormarck, all rights remain with current holder). Jake and his partner Rick have been relic-hunting for a while (mostly stealing antiques from people whose ownership claim is dubious). Steampunk tech is taken as normal, magic is middling (not everyone believes). And the events that trigger the plot — Jake’s father acquired a rare item that someone wants enough to kill him (and they did) — have been accomplished before Page One. We get some exposition about the characters along the way, but not much about the setting.

I enjoy that approach. Like I said, it’s one I use a lot myself. Although I found having the two federal agents “Sturm and Drang” already hunting a Jack the Ripper type as the book starts made it a little overfull (perhaps it’s because the Martins are going to spin them off into their own adventures). I still really enjoyed the book (and that is my honest opinion, even though Gail’s a friend of mine).

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The upside of returning to the mean

I’ve mentioned the Law of Return to the Mean several times in this blog: If I’m performing way above average, sooner or later random chance will bring me back to my norm. The upside is that after a crappy pair of work weeks like Christmas and New Year’s, the odds are things will improve. And behold, they did.

The big news is that I finally finished the next-to-last draft of Southern Discomfort. I will clean it up a little before the end of the month and send it out to two friends who volunteered to beta. Later this year I will print the whole thing out and do the final final draft fix.

I can’t tell you how good it feels. Brain From Outer Space has languished for years because every time I rewrite it, I get to the last third and the plot falls apart. I was really afraid I wouldn’t be able to wrap up Southern Discomforts successfully, or I’d wind up doing endless redrafts. Apparently not. This is very good news.

And as if that wasn’t enough:

My new Screen Rant is out, spotlighting 9 embarrassing final roles for talented actors (e.g., Boris Karloff in House of Evil) and nine that were awesome farewells (Carrie Fisher in The Last Jedi). Below we have a photo from Lon Chaney Jr’s miserable last film (Dracula vs. Frankenstein)

And a shot of Marilyn Monroe working on The Misfits (a good final film for both her and Clark Gable)

I also finished a new draft of No One Can Slay Her. It still needs work, but I got enough of the ending worked out, and enough of the villain’s plan, that I think I can rework the whole thing much better on the next draft. It never hurts to know where you’re going.

I finally sorted out my cover issues with the paperback version of Atlas Shagged. I ordered a print copy to check everything is kosher; it’ll be here next week. Assuming it all checks out, the book will go live by the end of next week (it is, of course, already available in ebook).

And I’ll be a guest at Illogicon in Raleigh this weekend, which is always fun. My voice is still a little strained from last week’s sickness, but I think I’ll be able to manage.

It’s so nice to be productive!

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Given Mum’s death, I’m doing surprisingly well (#SFWApro)

I wasn’t quite sure what I’d feel like after Monday, but I’m doing okay. Frequent moments of my guts clenching up. Occasional sniffling. But having a clear path — we have the service date set, I have my tickets booked — is very reassuring, compared to heading down to Ft. Walton Beach with no idea when I’d be back.

And more than that, people talking about her on FB has helped me recover memories of her when she was young and healthy. Most of my memories of Mum are dominated by her illness. Increasing listlessness. Worry and nervousness as she becomes more and more helpless. Going up to help her with one thing or another when she was in Maryland (these were rarely fun trips). Mum spending all day sitting in front of the TV. All of that added a level of misery to my thoughts of her that I now seem to be getting past.

I imagine there’ll be more tears at the service, but we’ll see.

I didn’t attempt to put in a full week’s writing, which was wise. It’s not just that I sometimes had difficulty focusing, it’s that I just lost too much time on practical stuff. Helping my sister with the obit. The travel to the airport Monday and back. A long session with Delta transferring my Monday ticket to a new date (they were very helpful once I explained the situation).  So not enough time, and I didn’t want to do anything with a deadline (Screen Rant knows I’m out of action for a couple of weeks).

That meant getting ahead on blogging, which requires less effort than fiction. I also wrote my first post for the Atomic Junkshop blog, which I’ll link to once it’s up. I’ll be following up with more semi-regular posts.

I also finished polishing the Applied Science collection for reprinting, probably under a different name. Next up: find a cover. This one I’ll probably have to pay for as I doubt there’s existing art as appropriate as the cover for Atlas Shagged.

I rewrote No-One Will Slay Her and got the draft almost finished. Unfortunately the ending still needs work. I know the broad outline but the details — why don’t the cops show up? Just what does the villain anticipate Jennifer (POV character) doing? — need sharpening. I’d hoped to accomplish that today, but my brain

I’d have liked to work on Southern Discomfort but that didn’t happen.

I’ll leave you with a shot of Mum (l.) and our cousin Mary from a long time ago. Looking at the photos from when she was healthy helps too.

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One thing pretty much dominated the week (#SFWApro)

My mother is about to die.

From my sister’s reports, it’s not that her health has gotten worse (as long-time readers may recall, it’s been bad for a while), it’s that she’s just tired. She doesn’t want to eat. Doesn’t want to take her meds (they’ve dropped all of them but the absolute life-saving ones). And the latest estimate is within the week. My sister’s theory is that after she saw my brother and his daughter at Thanksgiving (the first time since my wedding), Mum was ready to let go.

So at some point soon I’ll be traveling down there. TYG and I are figuring out the details (doggy boarding options, is it feasible to go before she passes?) and some time soon I’ll be off (TYG too).

At the moment this mostly feels like when TYG has a serious health problem, an odd, unpleasant, but very recognizable (to me, anyway, as I’m the one experiencing it) discomfort that makes it next to impossible to focus on work. I got my Screen Rant in (film actors who flopped on TV but not much else done once I got the news. A little bit of work on No-One Can Slay Her. Some revisions to my Applied Science short story collection.

Plus I spent Wednesday cleaning house (writer’s group Christmas party this weekend — and yes, it’s still on) and Thursday dealing with a structural inspector. Good news on that front at least: the house has some physical problems but we’re not at risk for it collapsing under us. That’s a great relief (fixing a major foundation crisis is high priced stuff).

And my short story End of the World on the Cutting Room Floor will be out next week. That’s very good news.

Mum’s imminent death outweighs everything else though. Though it doesn’t stop the selfish personal thought about how this will affect my schedule or my plans and how inconvenient it is. I believe that’s fairly normal. We’ll see what happens when I’m actually there and dealing with the death.

As I write posts in advance, things should continue as normal on this blog. Expect future personal updates sooner or later. Probably sooner.

At least if she’s going to go, it appears it’s by choice. That’s a good thing, maybe?

Below, Mum and her partner from a happier period.

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