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Husband, father, and writer working on a short story project and submitting my novel, The Windsmith, to agents.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Life and Tiems of Aries Webb, Part 8: Fathers and Daughters

The lights on the large display in the Situation Room were bright, yet the room itself seemed dark. It was a contrast that Aries had never gotten used to, even through the war. He squinted in the dark, trying to see the people around the table as he sat down. Finally, he gave up and pulled out his glasses and put them on. He hated these things, but medical care was not quite up to standards just yet as the new nation struggled to get things in order. Strangely, the nation was easier to run when they were busy fighting a war. Aries had since come to realize that the real task of building a nation was only just now starting.

The four men and one woman that sat around the table represented the Prime Minister’s top military advisers, the leaders of the armed forces and the state police. They all stared at him with expectant faces. He always felt a little uncomfortable around these people. To a person, they were all older than him by abut twenty years, and all had more experience in military matters than he could ever muster. But, by fate, he was their leader, and they waited for him before marching.

“Report,” he said, trying to sound authoritative. It was something Bo had taught him. Military types liked a decisive leader.

“Sir, the dissidents have moved their operations to Schmidt, near the South Pole,” General Edwards was saying. He had once worked for the enemy during the war, but had defected to become a Martian citizen after the final battle. Now, he was Bo Wu’s chosen successor as the General of the Martian Army. “It looks like we have them on the run, and I’m confident that now that our air force is in full fighting shape, we can take them before they can cause any more serious trouble.”

“I would agree, sir,” the woman, General Marissa Payne said. “We’re at full strength and ready to go.”

“Has there been any further word from Atherton?” Aries asked. “Before we make our move, I want to be sure that he’s really with this group this time, and that it’s not another set up.”

“Yes, sir,” Edwards said. “We have had several visual confirmations by our intelligence operatives that Atherton is with this group in Schmidt. We can trap him in the South Poll and trap him for certain this time, sir. I’m positive of it.”

“Are we sure that this isn’t just another one of his traps?” Aries asked. Since the man had escaped capture and lead a guerrilla war against the Martian people, Zachery Atherton had set up the Martians at least three times.

“We’re positive it is, sir,” Edwards said. “But, our intelligence confirms that Atherton is actually there this time. And I’m pretty sure I know what the particular set up he’s trying to trap us with. It’s similar to one he used in South America. Knowing what he’s doing, I can maneuver around him.”

“Okay, make it happen,” he said. They all nodded, and then Anthony, his personal aid, came up to whisper in his ear that his next appointment was ready to meet in another room nearby. He sighed, thanked the military leaders and walked out the room. His day was only three ours old, but he was already exhausted.

“Anthony,” Aries said. “Have some strong coffee waiting at my next meeting, please.”

“It’s already there, sir,” Anthony said. Aries smiled.

“I don’t know what I would do without you, Anthony,” Aries said.

“I know, sir,” Anthony said. “I know.”

****

Zita came into the massive, state granted building that was her home. She had, in fact, grown up in the Prime Minister’s mansion, and so had never known any other home. But, she had it drilled into her head that this was a gift from the people of Mars, paid for by their taxes and hard work. It was, in fact, one of two homes so gifted to her and her father. This particular mansion was the official residence of the leader Mars, and would pass onto the next Prime Minister when her father stepped down. The other was a smaller place, though still large compared to the apartments most Martians lived in, that was their actual home. It was built three years ago by three construction companies as thanks for securing Martian freedom. Zita loved both houses, and understood what they meant to both her father and the Martian people.

But she hated coming home alone. Servants lived in the Prime Minister’s mansion, sure, and they took care of her fine, providing food and taking care of her clothing. Cho even helped her with her homework. But none of that was a good replacement for her father. And he was never home when she got there after school. Or was it?

“Honey?” she heard her fathers voice say from down one of the halls. “Is that you?”

“Dad?” she asked.

“Down here, in Office Two,” he said. She walked down the hall to what was called Office Two, so called because it was used for times when her dad, the Prime Minister of Mars, wanted to work but didn’t mind getting interrupted. Office One was a private office that even Anthony couldn’t interrupt him in.

“What are you doing home?” she asked, leaning on the door frame. “You’re never home this early.”

“Well, I had to escape all the meetings,” he said. “I needed to get some real work done.”

She narrowed her eyes some. “Real work?”

He held up his ePad, which was currently opened to a mail program.

“It’s a report from Uncle Bo,” he said.

Zita gasped. Her Uncle Bo had been searching for her mother, lost since the middle of the War for Independence about ten years ago. All they really knew was that she was a POW, taken in an attempt to convince Dad to end the war to save her. He hadn’t, of course, and Zita was still angry with him about that. Mars could have won its Independence some other time, with some other leader. She had been without her mother since she was three. And she blamed her Dad for that. But Uncle Bo had volunteered to go find her on his own, and any news from him included news about her.

“What’s he say?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I just got here a few minutes ago. I was about to watch it and find out. Come on, sit next to me, and we’ll watch it together.”

She pulled up a chair next to the big, metal desk and pressed the play button on the mail. Aries placed the ePad down on the table, and the video sprung up as a three dimensional hologram. It was new technology, developed by a new technology firm back in India on Earth. Zita was super excited that she and her dad were given advanced copies of the new ePads, she loved showing hers off at school. It was a perk to being the daughter of the Prime Minister.

“Aries,” the voice of Uncle Bo came through the speakers before the video fully realized. Then, she saw him, his hair starting to gray slightly at the temples. “And I hope Zita is there with you too. How are you, Little Princess?”

She smiled. Only Uncle Bo got away with calling her anything other than her name. Well, and Dad, who just called her Honey or Kiddo a lot. But Uncle Bo called her Little Princess, and that would always mean something special to her.

“So, I have some really good news, followed by some bad news, and both are related,” he said. “I’ll just get right into it. I found Amelia.”

That brought gasps from both of them. Uncle Bo usually didn’t talk out right about Mom, he usually spoke in code, and even in Chinese. Today he was speaking outright, and in English. That meant whatever he found, he wasn’t afraid of anyone else finding him. What was going on?

“She is being held in a POW Camp in California,” he continued. “It turns out that the US Government re-opened Alcatraz as a prison and is using it for Prisoners of War from both Mars and China. Lots of people are still in there. They kept it pretty hushed up, using the earthquake as cover for closing the park. But, I had been hearing rumors from my contacts in China that California was the place to find prisoners. I got here and started some snooping. I found proof about Alcatraz, and tried to plan getting on the island to confirm Amelia was there. Then, yesterday, I got this in my mail.”

The image on the screen shifted from the Chinese man to that of an outside scene. It looked like someone looking from a cliff of some sort, over an ocean or sea, and there was a city across it. Zita didn’t know where that was until she thought she recognized the bridge in the scene as well. It had to be San Francisco. A man moved in front of the camera than. He was older, in a starched and pressed military uniform showing general stars. He smiled, and it was a pleasant smile, not all what she was used to seeing on military people.

“Greetings, General Wu,” the man said. “I hope this message finds you well. I have it on good authority that you’ve been looking for me. Or rather, my daughter. Well, rest assured that she is here, and safe and sound. I’ve been making sure that she’s quite well taken care of. I truly wish I hadn’t had to take her away from her husband. Speaking of which, I’m going to assume that you’ll be passing this message along, so allow me to talk to my son-in-law.”

“Aries,” he said, and he smiled again. Dad stiffened a little, and Zita thought she heard him say ‘General’ under his breath. “Son before I begin, I want you to know that I admire you. I always have, which was why I was more than happy to let my daughter marry you. And especially in light of what you have accomplished up there. Impressive. I’ve had nothing but sympathy for you and your cause from the start. In fact, it was me that convinced the new president to end the war and sue for peace.

“But enough of that. You want to hear about Amelia, and no doubt some explanation about why, if I am so much on your side, I kidnapped my own daughter and took her away from you and that lovely granddaughter of mine. Well, that’s a little more complicated. See, when the war started, there was a lot of anti-China feelings in the US, and everyone thought of Mars as an ally of China, especially after that little stunt you pulled with Phobos. Brilliant, by the way. Anyway, no one was willing to let you win freedom for Mars if that meant you would just be working for the Chinese. And some up and coming officer here got the stupid idea that they could force you to give up if they kidnapped Amelia.

“I caught wind, and took control of the operation mid-stream. That took a lot of my political capital, let me tell you. But it was worth it to protect my daughter. Now, ever sense then, I’ve been working on getting her freed and returned to Mars, especially now that the war is over. But, she’s scheduled to face War Criminal charges, though a date hasn’t yet been set. It’s a big bunch of bull hockey, if you ask me. They’re not planning on charging anyone held here. They're just going to keep them here and use them for information. I just hope that you understand that I’ve done and am still doing all I can to help her and you.

“Now, General Wu, back to you. I’m sending you all the information I can safely include in this message. Please, do not try and rescue Amelia here. If you try, weather successful or not, this place will become worse that it has ever been. It’s very difficult to get here without being detected, never mind get off again. I suggest holding off on any rescue attempts. Truly, Prime Minister and General, your best bet her is politics. Negotiate for her release. Offer something to the US that they want desperately, in return for all POW’s currently being kept at Alcrataz. Please, don’t do anything rash. Diplomacy is your weapon now.”

The old man paused, and Zita thought she saw a tear slip down his cheek.

“I must go now. If I can, I’ll send you what information I have. Good bye, and good luck.”

The scene turned back to Uncle Bo, who now had a worried look on his face.

“It’s the first real news we’ve had in a long time, Aries,” he said. “I’m not sure how you want to handle this from here, but I’ll start some preliminary scouting missions, see if maybe there is a way to do something. But in all honesty... I think the General is right. Getting her off there will be next to impossible. I’ll be waiting for your reply.”

And with that, the message ended. Zita turned to look at her dad.

“OMG, dad!” she said. “This is it! This is our chance to get Mom back. You can call the US government and negotiate!”

She expected him to be as excited as her. She expected him to maybe even call Anthony and set up the meeting now. She did not expect the reaction she did get. Her dad stood, his face drooping and sad. He looked at her like he was about to tell her the worst news ever. She could feel the tears coming. She shook her head before he started talking.

“Honey,” he started. “I can’t. I’ve already tried. I continue to try. But the truth is, we’re in such a tough financial situation right now, we have nothing to offer. Not even natural resources, really. We need most of what we’re mining ourselves, it doesn't leave much to sell. And we don’t have much in the way of anything else the US would want. I’ll keep trying, of course. I have to, and knowing about Alcatraz will help, but I doubt very much we’ll make much progress in freeing your mother.”

“No,” Zita said. “No! You have to do more, dad! We’re this close, you have to do something!”

He sat back down, slumping into it. She could tell by looking at him, he was defeated.

“I hate you!” she screamed at him. It felt like she’d been doing that most of her life. “I hate you!”

She stormed out of the room, slamming the door as she went. But it did very little to make her feel better.

****

“I just don’t know what to do, Mom,” Aries said to the hologram of his mother. He slumped down on his overstuffed office chair and sighed.

“She’s thirteen, honey,” Ju said. “They get rebellious at that age.”

“It’s more than just that, Mom,” Aries said. “She’s been like this since she was eight. She really does hate me, and I can’t blame her. I mean, I promised her I would get her mother back. It’s been eleven years, Mom. Eleven! Zita doesn’t even know what her Mom’s favorite perfume is, or what kind of dresses she wears. She’s never made cookies with her, or even know what the sound of her laughter is like. She only knows what she looked like eleven years ago. And Amelia... she’s been without her daughter all this time. We’re this close, Mom. This close. The finish line is in sight, and all I can see are the huge, gaping pot holes in my wait. I not sure there’s anything we can do right now that won’t cause another war.”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something, honey,” Ju said.

“We’re broke, Mom,” Aries said. “We owe so much money to the European Commonwealth that it’s likely they’ll simply buy us and we return to colony status, just to a different country. I don’t really know if there’s really anything I can do at this point. And poor Zita... I’m at a loss on both counts, Mom.”

“Well, I never was really good with politics,” Ju said.

“Or money,” Aries heard his dad’s voice come from just off camera. He smiled at that old joke.

“Hush,” Ju said. “But I think I can do something to help you with Zita.”

Aries sat upright. “What?”

“Send her down here,” Ju said. “We’ve got a good set up here in South America, doing our research. Send her down here for the summer, and we’ll make her a lab assistant. She’ll be away from you for a while, spend some time with the family she does have, and maybe advance her knowledge of animal sciences.”

“She wants to be a vet, now,” Aries said, rubbing his chin. “This is a good idea, Mom.”

“I know,” Ju said, smiling.

“I’ll talk to her about it,” Aries said. “It should be her decision.”

“Good,” Ju said. “Let me know what she says.”

****

“I can be packed in an hour!” Zita said and jumped up to give her father a great big hug. Aries quickly leaned back and wrapped his arms around his daughter, both to hug her and to prevent her from falling to the floor. He smiled, and then he set her back down.

“You understand that you’re going there to work,” he said to her. “You’ll be there for the summer and you’ll be working on your zoology studies, right?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Are you kidding, Dad? I’ll be working with real animals, animals we don’t have here on Mars. I’ll be with Grandma and Granddad. This will be fantastic!”

“And you understand that I have to stay here, right?” he said at last.

That caused her to pause. “Yeah,” she said. “I wish you could come, though.”

“I know, honey,” he said, and gave her another hug. “I know. Me too. I may get some vacation time coming up in a few weeks, so I could be down there for a few days.”

“Yeah?” she asked. Her dad rarely got vacations, it seemed like the congress was always tasking him to get something or another accomplished.

“Yes,” he said, and kissed her on the forehead. “Now, you go and play. You’re shuttle to Earth doesn’t leave for another four days, so your hour packing excursion can wait a few days.”

She smiled, hugged him again, and took off running. She couldn’t wait to tell her friends. Earth. A whole other planet, and the one that none of them had ever been to. The mother world, and she was going to see it. It was exciting!

And secretly, she thought that maybe she could find a way to free her mom while she was there.

****
Zita stepped off the small, personal jet onto what appeared to be little more that a dirt strip and a two-story building with a tower behind it. This was the landing strip where her grandparents were working? This didn’t look at all that interesting. She stepped off the plane and immediately squinted in the bright sunlight. The sky was a bright blue, far more brilliant and bright than at home, forcing her to dig into her jacket for her sunglasses. She understood now what Grandma had suggested she bring them with her. And the place was hot, too. She knew it would be, but she had never really experienced it before. All the domes back home were climate controlled to be a nice, even temperature, and it only varied in temperature in places where experiments or environmental needs required it. According to Dad, it would be another hundred years before Mars was terraformed enough that the domes could be removed and the world was more like Earth. Now that she was here, she wasn’t sure she ever wanted it to be like that.

But then she heard something that made her smile. It was the cry of birds. She looked around to see if she could spot any, and it took a while before she saw a few on the roof of the building. They were so bright and colorful that she wanted to cry. Eventually, one of the other passengers on the jet nudged her to get her moving down the ramp, and she apologized as she did so. She felt like such a tourist, but she couldn’t help it. Earth was just so amazing compared to Mars. Her home was just red dirt and rocks outside the domes, and inside the domes was mostly steel, plastic and glass. Oh, sure, there were parks and zoo’s, but on Earth there were forests and jungles, with real wild animals.

Such as the one she saw running towards her now. It looked like a cat, but it was gigantic, orange with black stripes and a white face. She froze on the stairs, as did the man behind her. It stopped just a foot in front of her, sniffing. She was sure it was going to attack and eat her. How unfair was that? Not even on Earth for a few hours, and she gets eaten by some giant cat.

Suddenly, it jumped on her with its fore paws, pushing her down to the stairs. Then, its mouth got right up to her face, and she closed her eyes awaiting the grizzly end. Her hart was thumping when she felt a wet, sticky tongue rub across her face. Then it did it again, and she could swear she heard the beast purr. She opened her eyes to see hat it was, indeed, licking her.

“Khan!” she heard a woman’s voice call. “Khan, bad tiger. Get down, get down you great brute.”

When she looked up, she saw her grandmother yanking on a collar on the cat’s neck.

“Welcome to the jungle, dear,” she smiled. “Come, lets bring this little escape attempt back to his cell. You can settle in there.”

Zita laughed at the ridiculous sight of her skinny, old grandmother manhandling a giant cat. She stood up and helped her mother wrangle the beast back to the buildings that she thought was the landing tower.

****

“He just doesn’t seem to care, Grandma,” Zita said, putting the blood sample into the rack, then bringing the rack to the freezer unit. “He hasn’t done a single thing to help Mom. It’s all been Uncle Bo.”

“That’s not true, and you know it,” Ju said. She sighed and shook her head, sitting up from her microscope and looking at her granddaughter. “Your father has been pursuing every avenue available to him to find your mother and get her free. Diplomacy and politics are powerful weapons in the right hand, and your father is very good at both of them.”

“I just sometimes think he doesn’t really care,” Zita said. “I mean, he spends far more time working on the problems facing Mars than he does finding Mom.”

“You say that like Mars isn’t important,” Ju said. “Or worth helping.”

“It’s not important,” Zita said immediately. “Not compared to finding Mom.”

Ju sighed and stared hard at her granddaughter. Zita cringed slightly. Ju sat up very quickly, causing Zita to jump slightly.

“Come with me, young lady,” Ju said. “I have something to show you.”

Zita swallowed, but got up and followed her grandmother out of the lab and down the hall. It wasn’t long before she realized that Ju was taking her outside, into the Jungle itself. Even though she had been here for a few weeks now, the jungle still made her nervous. It was so... wrong to her. Everything was closed in and crowded, and it was noisy there. Not in a mechanical way, like a city was, but more... random, chaotic. Creepy noises she couldn’t identify, sounds that seemed to come from no where, strange animals moving among the trees. And everything was so green. It was such an alien place to her, and she felt like she would never get used to it. The austere vistas and mountains of Mars were looking more and more appealing the longer she spent on Earth.

Once out in the jungle, Ju lead Zita down a series of twisty paths, so that in very short order Zita was lost. It was her worst area of study since arriving. The few other interns there had all claimed to have memorized the paths in the jungle for a mile around the complex in a matter of days. She didn’t really believe them, but still, not having memorized any of then in two weeks was beginning to bug her. They walked for what seemed like an hour, though when Zita looked at her phone’s clock, she saw that it was only twenty five minutes. Her grandmother stopped at a tree and pointed to it. Zita looked, but it really didn’t look any different than the other trees in the area. Of course, trees and plants were not her area of interest. That was animals.

“Up there,” Ju said, pointing to some branches in the upper parts of the tree, “Is a species of bird called the Caatinga Woodpecker. We need one of them brought back to the lab so we can get some blood samples from it.”

Zita breathed out, only then realizing she was holding her breath. This was the kind of work she had been doing since arriving. Maybe Grandma wasn’t going to yell at her?

“I want you to climb up there and get one of the birds, a young one if possible,” Ju said. “They put up less of a fight. You should find several nests, so take your time and pick the right one.”

She stared at Zita in such a way as to indicate that the girl should start climbing right away. Zita blinked and nodded, then started to climb. It was difficult, given that she normally had time to get on proper protective gear and some climbing equipment, but Zita was young, limber and strong, so the climb was possible. After a sweat inducing ten minutes, Zita reached the first of the nests. The birds had been flying around her head for the past five minutes, crying at her loudly and buzzing her, but they never directly attacked her. She figured that they were not an inherently dangerous creatures, and getting the baby should be easy.

The first nest showed promise, too. It had four babies in it. She reached out her arm, and it was immediately bitten by the mother bird, who swooped down from seemingly no where. She batted at the bird and reached again, only to find that another bird had joined in the defense of the net. In short order, her hand had several red marks on it.

“They’re biting me!” she called down. “I don’t have my gear, this isn’t easy.”

“It’s not supposed to be, dear,” Ju cried back up. “Just get a baby out of the nest and start climbing down. They’ll leave you alone about half way down.”

Great, Zita thought. Grandma isn’t yelling at me, she’s punishing me by letting the birds pick at me.

She gritted her teeth and went back at it. She adjusted her position so she could use both hands easier, and made a new attempt to grab a bird. She jabbed quickly, grabbing one of the babies and yanking it out of the nest before the two birds protecting it could get to her. She used her other arm to start batting at them as they came at her. The pecked at her arm and hand more, but it gave her the time she needed to start climbing down. This was far more hurtful than the attempt to get the baby, as she needed her free hand to climb, and so was defenseless. She tired her best to only present her back to the attacking birds, and kept the baby close to her chest as she climbed back down.

Suddenly, though, the attacks stopped. She looked up and saw that the two birds had returned to the nest. They were still squawking at her, but they were no longer attacking. She wondered briefly why, but decided to be glad it was over and finished her climb down. She handed the bird to her grandmother, who was now wearing gloves.

“Go get washed up, see Dr. Landry, and then meet me in Lab 3 when your done,” Ju said, then marched off with the bird, leaving Zita standing there. She looked back up at the birds, who were still agitated and yelling. She couldn’t figure out why they hadn’t followed her to rescue their baby. She wold have followed herself and her grandmother to the ends of the world to get the baby back. But these two just stayed behind, yelling.

“Stupid birds,” she said, then went back inside.

****

“I don’t get it, Grandma,” Zita said, marching into Lab three. She had on clean clothes, as her last ones were getting a special sonic wash to get free of bird germs. Dr. Landry had lectured her long and hard about working without protective gear, until she told him that her grandmother had made her do it. Then he just laughed.

“Good,” Ju said. “Not getting things is the spark that motivates most scientists.”

Zita frowned. Sometimes, her grandmother was a very odd person.

“Why don’t you tell me what, specifically, it is you don’t get, dear,” Ju said after a few moments of silence.

“Those birds,” she said. “Why did they stop attacking? I mean, I kidnapped one of their children, why didn’t at least one of them keep coming after me?”

Ju looked up from her notes and turned around to face Zita. She was smiling.

“Come here, child,” Ju said. Zita almost rolled her eyes. When Grandma called her child, it meant she was going into teacher mode. “Bring your ePad.”

Zita grabbed her pad out of the bag and brought it to the table, setting it down where Ju indicated. Ju punched up a few commands on it, bringing up some of the cameras the research station had set up around the jungle. It had started raining out there, and everything was wet. This was something else different about Mars, but Zita liked the rain. It felt natural and wonderful and magical. It always made her smile.

When Ju set the pad flat on the table, the hologram technology took over, and the image because a three dimensional projection just above the screen. It was focused on the nest she had taken the bird from earlier.

“Tell me what you see,” Ju said.

“It’s the nest I was at earlier,” Zita said.

“Tell me specifics,” Ju prodded. Zita hated when she asked that. It meant she was missing something obvious to Ju.

“I see that it’s raining,” she said, looking more closely at the image. “And it looks like the two adult birds are both sheltering and providing food to the younger birds.”

In fact, it seemed to be a team effort. Hardly something one bird could do alone.

“Does that look like it could be done alone?” Ju asked, as if she could read Zita’s mind. She just shook her head. “Now, ask your question again.”

“Why didn’t the birds follow me?” she answered with a sigh.

“And the answer is?” Ju asked.

“Because they couldn’t,” Zita said. “Loosing one baby was hard, but they both had to stay behind to protect the other babies.”

“And do you know why I showed all this to you?” Ju asked, and Zita felt her heart skip a beat as she realized that she did.

“Yes,” she said. “Its like my dad with finding Mom. He wants to come down here after her, after the people that took her, but he can’t, because he has babies to protect back home. Me. And even Mars.”

Ju smiled and nodded. “Excellent,” she said. “No, go and get some sleep.”

Zita reached down to pick up her ePad and bring it back to her bag, shutting off the hologram.

“That really is a remarkable piece of technology,” Ju said. “The hologram thing. Where did you get it?”

“India,” Zita replied. “There’s a tech firm there that’s really in Mars and are big fans of dad. They send him new technology all the time. They...”

She paused, a light bulb going off in her head. She turned to look at her grandmother, who was confused by her granddaughter’s sudden excitement.

“Grandma! That’s it!” she said. “I know how to help Dad. Can I call him?”

****

Zita walked up to her dad and looked over the terrace at the new building being built below.

“Take a look, kiddo,” Aries said, giving her daughter a hug. “This is all your doing.”

Zita smacked her father playfully. “Not all my doing. You helped. A little.”

He laughed and hugged her tighter. She liked it. Things had been better with her had her dad since she returned to Mars two months ago.

“And I have more good news,” Aries said. “When word got out that this company was moving its headquarters to Mars, other tech companies started petitioning to move here as well, or at least set up plants here. We’re getting an influx of jobs opening here that will bring in money like never before. Mars will finally be able to start paying off its debts and actually getting something accomplished. You did good, honey. You did good.”

“No, Dad,” Zita said, squeezing her dad hard. “You did.”

The End

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