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The Altar

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‘The best post in the galaxy!’ This was what was said about sentry duty on Albitus Prime, the largest moon of the planet Robis in the Kalteran solar system. Yet, for Cameron Baylor, it was just another duty station. One stop along the way through his career, until he reached retirement. Then, he could sit with the future Mrs. Baylor on the front deck of their styro-home on a scenic planet like Chrolos with its multi-colored grasses, and many streams, recalling all of the excitement of his younger years.

Of course, this assignment would probably be the most uneventful tour of his career. Albitus Prime was the singularly most uneventful spot in the universe! The only thing there was on that rock was a science team, a small colony, mostly miners, and an administrator. There had never been any violence or war on Albitus as long as anyone knew. The only reason that a sentry was needed at all was to maintain the security of the science dome. Cameron suspected that it had to do with the fact that the administrator lived in that dome as well, and wanted a somewhat safe place in case the populace ever rebelled due to mismanagement of the colony. Not that the administrator did in fact abuse his authority, but constant paranoia seemed to be a part of the makings of politicians. That, and always trying to get something dirty on the other guy before he found some dirt on you. Cameron never liked politics, or politicians. But, he performed his duty in the way he was told. And this time, unfortunately, his assignment was on a desolate moon, guarding one of those of a class of people he so utterly detested. Oh well. That’s the way of military life.

It was said that after sentry duty on Albitus, the Federation of Interplanetary Colonies offered full retirement to those who had pulled duty there, regardless of how much actual time was needed before the standard twenty years were served. And it seemed that everybody that was given the post had opted for retirement.

Not Cameron. He was a soldier through and through. He wouldn’t retire until he wasn’t able to soldier any more. Even though he had only been in the service for eight years, he had done very well for himself. He had started as an ordinary private, one that showed no more promise than any other raw recruit. Until the first battle.

That first battle whetted his appetite for adventure, and the thrill was almost an aphrodisiac to him. He won medals for his valor that day, the first in what would become a long list of decorations. Soon, he climbed the rank ladder swiftly, becoming a sergeant within the next two years, a feat virtually unheard of. Two years after that, he was given his own platoon. He showed unerring instinct in outmaneuvering the enemy, and the unnatural coolness he displayed during a pitched and heated battle was unearthly. During his eight years of service, Cameron had fought more battles than most hardened veterans twice his age.

“He just likes to kill,” some would say. Others would shake their heads and mutter that he just didn’t have enough sense to be scared. The truth was, however, that Cameron tended to be as frightened as anybody else, but he learned to never let anyone see it. Why let anyone else think that he was as frightened as everyone else was. Besides, he enjoyed the way it unnerved his superiors.

The sudden firing of the reverse thrusters as the ship neared its landing site snapped Cameron out of his thoughts. He looked out of his window and watched the death-like gray of the moon’s surface come into view. So this was the illustrious Albitus Prime. It looked more like the surface of a shattered asteroid.

Robis, the planet Albitus orbited, wasn’t much to look at, either. The planet was smaller than the Earth, but nothing could live on its surface due to the fact that only trace amounts of carbon were found in the planet, and no oxygen. It’s atmosphere consisted mainly of hydrogen chloride gas, some ammonium and chloramine gases, and chlorine gas. The overall effect from space was that Robis was a sickly yellow-green ball that orbited Kalteros, the red giant star that served as its sun.

After the engines shut down and the ship was waiting to be unloaded, Cameron grabbed his duffel bag, the only luggage he brought on this trip, and stepped toward the exit hatch. The crew at the hatch was putting on small hydro-masks, before opening the door, and stepping outside. For, though the atmosphere was more than suitable to sustain human life as far as oxygen concentrations were concerned, Albitus was dry. Not the arid dryness of a desert, but that same kind of dryness amplified tenfold.

“Hey, Sarge! You need to put one of these on!” one of the rocket’s crew held out one of the small masks, a soft, almost imperceptible mist of water vapor curling out of the mask. Cameron walked past him as if nothing was said. He stepped onto the exit ramp, and saw the three soldiers at the other end, waiting for him.

“Sarge!” the crewman said again, proffering the mask a second time. “It makes breathing a whole lot easier.” Cameron ignored him a second time, and walked slowly, yet purposefully, down the ramp.

The intensity of desiccation hit Cameron immediately, the dry air eagerly robbing his lungs and eyes of their moisture. It felt as if someone had poured hot sand in his lungs, yet he let no sign of discomfort show on his face. He walked on, never slowing, though his chest felt more and more as if it were being smashed with a battering ram. His eyes burned as if being consumed in the fires of hell, the eyelids sticking to his eyes.

The group of soldiers consisted of one second lieutenant, and two corporals. One of the corporals leaned over and whispered something to the other. The officer said something in rebuke, and they immediately straightened to the position of attention. Cameron walked to the lieutenant and stopped, sharply bringing his heels together and crisply saluting the officer. The lieutenant saluted back.

“Sgt. Baylor, welcome to Albitus Prime! I hope your flight was pleasant.”

Cameron fought the urge to clear his throat against the choking feeling the dryness induced, and swallowed only slightly before speaking. “Thank you, Sir. I had a nice trip.” Each word was spoken as if he were at perfect ease, even though the effort to speak at all was Herculean. His lungs screamed in agony, yet still, no hint of his suffering was visible.

The corporal that had leaned over earlier was waiting for Cameron to make croaking noises, and therefore was totally surprised at the apparent ease with which the new soldier had spoken. The eyes of the other two soldiers also showed their surprise, as well as a new respect for the new soldier on post. Cameron had unnerved yet another of his superiors, and that was more than compensation for the agony he was going through.

Please follow me, Sergeant. The administrator is most anxious to meet you,” the younger officer said after a moment. Cameron lightly gestured to the lieutenant to lead the way, followed by a crisp, clear “After you, Sir.” They departed from the landing pad to the dome nearest to the ramp, and entered the first security area. They waited for a second while a thick glass door slid open to allow them entrance into the security sally port.

The climate-controlled air was more than a relief to Cameron, though he didn’t show this either. The corporals were still awestruck at the way this new man seemed unaffected by the air outside of the domes.

The routine search of the personnel was waived for the group at the insistence of the lieutenant.

Several corridors and two domes later, the small entourage stopped in front of a plain, gray door. Its only decoration was a small plaque that read ‘ADMINISTRATOR’ in plain block letters. The officer knocked lightly on the door, then waited. After a few seconds, a loud metallic ‘clack’ could be heard, and the door opened inward just enough to see the soft lighting of the room through the crack between the door and the jamb. The lieutenant pushed the door inward, and stepped into the office beyond.

Following behind the officer, Cameron, accompanied by the corporals, stepped into the soft glow that could be seen trying to get past the door and into the hallway beyond. Cameron’s eyes immediately darted over every inch of the room, as if he had entered into the headquarters of an enemy. Cameron did this in any new place, more out of habit, than anything else. But it was a habit that had saved his life on many occasions.

The decorum showed the administrator to be a man of extravagant tastes, especially for one who’d been stationed at this austere, bleak chunk of rock for God only knows how long. Portraits hung on the wall included such works as Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory”, Boticelli’s “Venus”, and Bastion Terrance’s “Moons Over the Caltonian Sea”, which Cameron suspected may have been the authentic paintings. There was a matched set of jade chairs carved into the likeness of two lions. The carpet looked to be made from the finest Dorinian Dragon fur, one of the most expensive of materials to obtain, usually because of the danger one puts themselves into while trying to cut the soft, silky tufts of hair from the irate reptile’s lower jaw. Along almost every wall, books packed any extra room that may have been available on the shelves. Some of these were ancient tomes of classic or rare texts, and the bookcases themselves were only too obviously antiques.

Cameron assimilated all this in a matter of seconds, even before he stopped before his new commander’s desk. The desk contrasted markedly with the rest of the room. Its craftsmanship was only second rate, and the wood was the harsh, bare grain one would expect in a teacher’s desk in grade school. Then he looked at the administrator for the first time.

The man that reclined in the high backed chair was in his early fifties, his hair raven black except for a touch of steel gray on the little bit of sideburns that he grew. His hair was slicked back, not to hide any balding spots, but because it seemed to fit the person wearing it. The administrator’s eyes, which had locked onto Cameron’s with a sharp intensity, were jet black... no iris or sclera, but seemingly only pupil, marking him as one of the mutants from the Galos System, fiercely devoted and loyal people, renowned for the increased sensitivity of their five senses. The smile that played on those refined lips was disarming, yet the penetrating gaze made Cameron uneasy, feeling as if his very soul was laid bare for inspection.

The administrator sat back casually, reclining somewhat, idly fidgeting with a heavy letter opener. Yet his eyes never left Cameron’s. He wore a blue suit (obviously tailored, Cameron thought) and a white shirt with the same attention to detail that a soldier would take when wearing his dress uniform; not a wrinkle or stitch out of place, shirt well pressed. The tie, also blue, though not quite the same his as the suit, was flawlessly tied.

All these details about the man behind the desk Cameron noticed, the whole time not breaking eye contact with his new commander.

“Yes, Sergeant, they are the original paintings,” the administrator said, as if answering a spoken question. “And the furniture is also as rare as it appears. Call it a character flaw, if you will, but I do like to indulge in some of the finer things in life.” Cameron, though surprised that his thoughts were so easily read, did not betray the fact that he had been caught off guard. His face seemed to be made of stone, and his eyes never blinked.

Cameron immediately felt a strong dislike for this man, though he wasn’t quite sure why. It may have been the cool, almost overbearing confidence the older man displayed. Or maybe it was the richness of his voice that reinforced that same sense of smugness. Whatever it was, something nagged at him like some primal instinct to beware of this man.

“Sir!” the lieutenant snapped to attention. “This is the new serg...”

“I’m well aware of who he is, Lieutenant,” the administrator interrupted. “You are dismissed for now. I wish to speak with Sgt. Baylor alone.” The lieutenant saluted, did an about face, and marched out of the office, the two corporals in tow.

When the door was shut behind them, Cameron smiled to himself. He knew the young officer was a little flustered. There were very few officers that Cameron had any real respect for, since most were no more than politicians in uniform, and not real soldiers at all.

“Welcome to Albitus Prime, Sergeant,” the administrator said smoothly. “I’m quite sure you’ll find this tour of duty different from what you’re used to, but I know you’ll find that it has its challenging moments.”

‘Yeah, right!’ Cameron thought, ‘like how to keep from losing one’s mind from the absolute boredom that seems to hang like a pall over this place!’

“Yes, Sir,” Cameron agreed, “I’m sure that it does.” His face still betrayed nothing of his thoughts.

The administrator smiled at Cameron’s response. “Well, anyway, I trust that your tour of duty here will be a new experience.” He stood up and walked slowly around the desk, his hands behind his back. “I know that it must seem unusual to have a man of your caliber working at such a quiet, uneventful place such as this. But the need for the very best is required. And you, Sgt. Baylor, are being called the greatest soldier to don the uniform, possibly even from the beginning.”

Cameron waited a moment, before responding. He knew his record was good, but he felt the he was being jerked around by this man’s smooth words. “Sir, may I be so bold as to ask why this is so? I mean, I did a thorough background check on this post at the main library at the Federation’s main intergalactic resource center, and found no reason for any need for security above that which can be obtained from the common soldier.” The administrator smiled a little to himself, a habit that Cameron was swiftly growing to hate.

“Do you put so much stock in what the library has in it, to doubt the word of someone who has been in charge of this installation for the past twelve years?” He walked behind his desk, and sat down. He gestured to one of the chairs that sat against the walls. “Make yourself comfortable, Sgt. Baylor. I’ve asked you here for the express purpose of getting better acquainted.”

“I prefer to stand, Sir, if that’s acceptable. I sat entirely too much on the flight here.”

“As you wish,” replied the older man, again the small little smile on his face, as if he were amused at some private joke.

Cameron felt less at ease than ever by now, and he would rather have been about his business by now. He hated talking to commanding officers, especially civilian commanders, any more than necessary. But these orientation-type meetings were unavoidable.

“At the present time, you don’t see the need for such high priority security.” This was stated as fact, not as a question. The smile was still on his face, that maddening, irritating smile! “Are you so well versed in the history of this post, that you can tell me of the rebellion that occurred shortly after the post was open?”

“There was no such rebellion, Sir. If there was, the histories should have recorded it.”

“Even if it was a matter of intergalactic security?” the administrator inquired. He looked hard at Cameron to see the impact of his words. Cameron met that piercing gaze without flinching, even though he was much less sure of himself. His face remained impassive, but the facade was not easily kept.

“Since you’ll be stationed here, you need to know something of the reason you were chosen. This moon was chosen for a research center, as I’m sure you well know. What the research is, you needn’t worry yourself about. Suffice it to say that if rebels or hostile alien races had the object of our research, the Federation would be in danger of being torn apart. We are close to finishing our research, but probably won’t be using the results of our labor unless the Federation absolutely needs to. Yes, Sgt. Baylor, the project is of a military nature, and I’m sure that you of all people can appreciate the need for secrecy, and security in the matter of our planet’s history. Any mention of the riots would then have to be accompanied by the reason for the riots. The colony that originally dwelt here found out what we were doing, and they tried to stop us, since most of them were none other than Caltaran rebels.”

Cameron knew of the activities of the Caltarans from both hearsay and personal experience. He had earned his first medal of valor on the fields of the colony planet of Kesron-6, dubbed “New Earth” for its similarities to the mother planet. He understood well the ferocity of these rebels, as well as their tenacity in battle. They would stop at nothing to prevent the Federation from progressing in any manner possible, even if that progress would benefit them as well.

They were basically anarchists. But the original philosophy that John Caltar had preached was for localization of authority on a planetary scale, instead of a government that ruled absolutely over several solar systems, and had no true idea of the needs of each planet that were unique to that one planet. Each planet could send a delegation to Boros, the seat of Federation power, and meet to discuss the needs of the Federation. The planetary needs would be met by the planet’s governor, unless it was an emergency.

It was a sound ideology, but the emperor at the time, a man named Trajen, was a man hungry for power, and wanted nothing to do with such thoughts. He labeled Caltar a rebel, and had him executed for treason. A mistake he never lived down. Caltar’s martyrdom only spread the idea of separation from the total dominion of the emperor, and Trajen tried to crush any who spoke of such things.

Eventually, Trajen died, and his son, Cyrus, reigned in his stead. He reigned wisely, somewhat adopting bits and pieces of Caltar’s philosophy, and this appeased most of the planets in the Empire. With this delegation of authority, the Empire became the Federation. But all true power still belonged to the emperor. There were those who still held a grudge over the fact that there still was an emperor, even though they basically had received all that Caltar had wanted. They still rebelled, calling for the downfall of the emperor, himself. Thus did the Caltarans become guilty of the very treason that John Caltar had been executed for. In the eighty years since that time, the ideals that had marked the Caltaran movement became mixed and diluted with the political ideologies of just about any renegade philosophy opposed to the Federation. At the present time, there was no concrete and singular ideal that the Caltarans adhered to, other than a change in Federation power. Some factions felt that the change should come through strictly political channels, while others felt that change was to be had no matter how it was accomplished.

The movement was overall a dead one, with a few pockets of furious resistance isolated to some of the harsher planets. This harshness was due to one of three factors. The first reason was that the overall environment was not meant to be inhabited by men, and was difficult, not to mention dangerous, to work in. The worker complained about needing more pay, or more this, less that, and so on. Caltaran movements in these communities were generally calm, more like a union than anything else. This was often good for the regulation of some laws that were enforced only on that planet or moon, due to the uniqueness of the situation. In this, the Caltaran philosophy really worked, and curiously, this group was no longer classed as belonging to the “Caltaran movement”.

The second cause of revolt was due to the abuse of power by the political leaders assigned to govern that colony. This happened only rarely, but the results were always bloody. But, order was almost always restored as soon as better leaders were put in charge.

The last cause of Caltaran insurrection was the worst. It was that of fanatics and lunatics that just wanted to wreak havoc. This may have seemed odd for so many incidents to have occurred, but some colonies in the galaxy were not gentle on the physiology of human beings. Some toxic chemical leak from a formerly unknown underground source would spray whole colonies, and those that didn’t die were seldom ever the same. Once in a great while, a massive meteor shower would leave the asteroid belt, and would survive long enough to contaminate a stream, or the air. Whatever the cause of the mental disturbance, this was the most dangerous group, and the kind that was almost always referred to when discussing Caltaran uprisings. It was this last group that Cameron had fought against so many times.

“Sir, I’ve never heard of any type of Caltaran, or any other subversive activity, in this sector of Federated space.”

“You doubt my word, Sergeant?” the man behind the desk asked in a somewhat casual manner, the small grin still there. He leaned back in his chair, and studied Cameron’s face.

Cameron was becoming a little more than annoyed, but still didn’t let it show. He answered very calmly, “No, Sir. I just like to know as much as I can about a duty station prior to arriving. If there’s more to learn than I have found before arrival, I try to obtain the most information as soon as possible. I feel that it makes me a better soldier, Sir.” Cameron looked the administrator in the eyes boldly, yet without any hint of defiance or obstinance.

The administrator sat still for a moment, contemplating what the sergeant was saying. After a moment, he sat up and put his arms on the desk, interlocking his fingers in front of him. “Excellent answer, my boy! I could have expected no less from the man that I have heard is the ultimate soldier, both on and off the field.” He chuckled ever so slightly to himself, and added, “I hope you’ll benefit from your tour here as much as we’ll benefit from your stay.” He reached to the intercom box on his desk and pressed a small button. “You may come back in, Lieutenant.” Cameron detected just the slightest bit of contempt in the administrator’s voice.

The door clacked and opened, the lieutenant entering as if on cue. He walked in with more pomp than before, trying to look impressive in front of the new soldier. He looked more infantile than anything else, and the administrator only thinly veiled his disdain for the young officer.

“Please show the sergeant around the post and where he will be assigned.”

“Yes, Sir!” The lieutenant snapped a crisp salute, and asked Cameron to follow. As they both did an about-face, the administrator called after Cameron.

“Please feel free to stop on and see me any time, Sgt. Baylor. Never let it be said that Marco Polatti ever turned a deaf ear to one of the Federation’s soldiers.” After a brief look over his shoulder to acknowledge that he’d heard, the two marched out of the office, and the door closed behind them with a very loud clack.

The room he had been assigned was small, but comfortable, especially since he didn’t have to share it with anybody. His duffel bag had been placed in the room by one of the corporals that was in the original meeting party while Cameron was meeting the administrator. The twin bed was more comfortable than most military beds, and the fact that he had a private room on the same floor as the lieutenant and the administrator seemed odd. As for when he asked to be placed in the enlisted men’s quarters, well, he just thought the officer would start laughing at him.

“The Sentry,” the lieutenant said, over-emphasizing the word ‘sentry’, “is a post that is reserved only for the best-of-the-best Federation soldiers. No common soldier gets that position, Sergeant.” Never had Cameron heard of the position of sentry as being glorious, except for the guards at the embassy buildings and the emperor’s palace. This was a nothing-ville that had been in existence for only thirty years, supposedly for the development of some scientific breakthrough. In all that time, no wonders of modern science coming from this desolate moon were ever even hinted at.

The whole situation didn’t sit well with Cameron. It didn’t fit into the logical pattern of things. Best to do what one was told, but never let down your guard. This was usually Cameron’s response to unusual occurrences. It was a shame that this ‘occurrence’ was to last for two years. He lay back on his bed with his hands clasped behind his head, looking at the plain white ceiling.

A light knocking on his door broke into the silence of his thoughts. “Come in,” he said, never taking his eyes from the ceiling. The door opened, and the lieutenant took one step into the room. He looked down at the floor and nervously fidgeted with his cap. After a second or two, the officer cleared his throat.

“Uh, Sergeant,” he began uncomfortably, “The mess hall’s serving dinner....“. He paused a moment.

“Y-y-e-e-s-s?” Cameron prompted.

“Well, uh, I was wondering if I could get you to join me. That is, if it’s all right with you. I mean, I’ve heard so much about you, I would be so honored to have you join me.”

Cameron noted the lieutenant’s discomfort, and turned his head to look at the younger man. The officer’s eyes were fixed to a spot on the floor, and he wrung his cap unconsciously. ‘Odd behavior for an officer,’ he thought. There were a lot of things around here that didn’t quite fit. Better to find out what they were, before they found him.

“Sure,” he said to the obvious relief of the officer. “I haven’t had a good meal since leaving the space station.” He stood up, and together, the two men left the room.

The mess hall was spacious, and the chairs much more comfortable than one would expect in a military establishment. There were no less than fifty tables that would seat a minimum of eight persons each. Instead of windows, there were televiewer screens showing a panoramic view of an ocean breaking on some massive rocks by the food service line. On the other side of the room, there was a white, sandy beach that was greeted by a stand of pine trees.

Cameron looked down at the fish on his plate that was surrounded by small morsels of shrimp and crump snails. ‘Figures!’ he thought. He looked up as the lieutenant set down his tray and sat down.

“As I was saying, Sgt. Baylor, I...”

“Please! Just call me Cameron. Ok?” he interrupted, not unkindly. He figured that it would be easier to figure this place out if he could get this insecure officer to open up, and familiarity was one way of doing that.

“Ok...Cameron. I just wanted to thank you for joining me. I’ve heard so much about you, that I wanted to get to know the man behind the legend.” Cameron rolled his eyes, and stuffed a piece of fish in his mouth. “I mean,” the officer continued, “there have been a lot of great soldiers stationed here, but none that have accomplished so much at an age so close to my own. And I thought that you being so much younger, I might get to know more of you than I could of the other sentries.”

“Tell me something, then,” Cameron said. “What happened to all of the other sentries after their tour here? I’ve never met one during my whole career, and in the battles I’ve fought, I’m sure I’d have met someone that had been here before, someone of such high caliber. But I’ve never so much as even heard rumors of such a man on any post that I’ve been stationed. I’ve heard of a few soldiers coming here, but never have I met somebody that has already been here.”

The lieutenant looked down, obviously nervous. “They all retired after their tour here was over,” he answered in a subdued voice. Cameron examined the man opposite him without trying to look obvious that he was studying him.

“Retired? Well, I’m not going to retire after my tour. I think I’ll put in for some place exciting, like Xenon-12, for instance. I hear that the racial riots have gotten worse over there.” His response struck a chord within the officer. He stood up, a worried look on his face. Or was it the look of a trapped animal?

“What’s wrong, Sir?” Cameron asked, noting how his remarks were affecting the younger man.

“Uh...uh... nothing. Why do you ask?” he responded, trying to appear nonchalant, but failing miserably.

“No reason,” Cameron reassured him. “You just looked a little out of sorts, that’s all.” They ate in silence for several minutes. Cameron’s gaze swept every inch of the mess hall, studying it out of habit as if he were expecting an ambush. The lieutenant kept his eyes on his plate, as if the moment he turned his attention away, some of the food would get up and run away.

“So, Sir,” Cameron broke the uncomfortable silence, causing his companion to jump a bit from the sudden break in silence, “how long have you been stationed here?” The officer looked up and smiled, obviously glad in a change in subject matter.

“I’ve been stationed here as a soldier for five years, but I’ve been here all of my life.” Cameron stopped chewing for a few seconds, and looked hard at the young man.

“Where did you do your basic training?” he asked unceremoniously around a mouthful of food.

“I did my basic in the soldier’s quadrant of the training center here on Albitus.”

The left side of Cameron’s mouth twitched spastically to the side for an instant, a habit he was known to have when things bothered him in a major way. “What about OCS?” he asked, setting his fork down for a moment. His full attention was on his companion.

“I did my officer training under the administrator, himself,” he proudly remarked, unaware of the scrutiny he was under.

“You mean to tell me that you’ve never been off of this moon? EVER?!”

“Why no, Serg...Cameron. Is that unusual?” the lieutenant asked, again feeling insecure.

“No,” Cameron lied, trying to keep the officer from drawing away from him. “Not really. So you trained under the administrator, huh? What kind of man is he? His name sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it.”

“Oh, he’s a great man. He used to be Sentry, but instead of retirement, he took the position of administrator of Albitus. He’s the only person to ever hold to post of Sentry that didn’t retire. He fought bravely in many battles, and was known to be the very finest of soldiers. He probably still is, if you ask me. Uh, no insult intended.”

“None taken, Sir. I’m not into all that hype, anyhow.” Cameron started to eat, again, occasionally scanning the hall. The information he had obtained rolled through his mind for the rest of the meal, even though the conversation became lighter, and the officer more at ease. Maybe it was the light that the lieutenant had shed on some of the things that had bothered him, but Cameron had the feeling that he was being watched. Again his gaze swept the room. Nothing unusual. At least nothing that he could detect.

Maybe it was because he was indeed being watched from a figure that peeked around the corner of the kitchen....

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