WINNER OF THE NEBULA AWARD
After a global pandemic makes public gatherings illegal and concerts impossible, except for those willing to break the law for the love of music—and for one chance at human connection.
In the Before, when the government didn't prohibit large public gatherings, Luce Cannon was on top of the world. One of her songs had just taken off and she was on her way to becoming a star. Now, in the After, terror attacks and deadly viruses have led the government to ban concerts, and Luce's connection to the world--her music, her purpose—is closed off forever. She does what she has to do: she performs in illegal concerts to a small but passionate community, always evading the law.
Rosemary Laws barely remembers the Before times. She spends her days in Hoodspace, helping customers order all of their goods online for drone delivery—no physical contact with humans needed. By lucky chance, she finds a new job and a new calling: discover amazing musicians and bring their concerts to everyone via virtual reality. The only catch is that she'll have to do something she's never done before and go out in public. Find the illegal concerts and bring musicians into the limelight they deserve. But when she sees how the world could actually be, that won’t be enough.
Release date: September 10, 2019
Print pages: 384
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A Song for a New Day
Copyright © 2019 Sarah Pinsker
Chapter 1 - Luce
There were, to my knowledge, one hundred and seventy-two ways to wreck a hotel room. We had brainstormed them all in the van over the last eight months on the road. As a game, I'd thought: 61, turn all the furniture upside down; 83, release a pack of feral cats; 92, fill all the drawers with beer, or marbles, 93; 114, line the floor with soapy plastic and turn it into a slip 'n slide, et cetera, et cetera.
In my absence, my band had come up with the one hundred and seventy-third, and had for the first time added in a test run. I was not proud.
What would Gemma do if she were here? I stepped all the way into their room instead of gaping from the hallway and closed the door before any hotel employees could walk past, pressing the button to illuminate the Do Not Disturb sign for good measure. "Dammit, guys. This is a nice hotel. What the hell did you do?"
"We found some paint." Hewitt's breath smelled like a distillery's dumpster. He lingered beside me in the vestibule.
"You're a master of understatement."
All their bags and instruments were crammed into the closet by the entrance. The room itself was painted a garish neon pink, which it definitely hadn't been when I'd left that morning. Not only the walls, either: the headboards, the nightstand, the dresser. The spatter on the carpet suggested somebody had knifed a Muppet and let it crawl away to die. For all the paint, Hewitt's breath was still the overwhelming odor.
"Even the TV?" I asked. "Really?"
The television, frame and screen. Cable news blared behind a drippy film of pink, discussing the new highway only for self-driving cars. We'd be avoiding that one.
JD lounged on the far bed, holding a glass of something caramel-colored. His shoes were pink. The bedspread, the site of another Muppet murder.
"We considered doing an accent wall." He waved his glass at the wall behind the headboard.
April sat on the desk, sticks in hand, drumming a soundless tattoo in the air. "How was your day?" she asked, as if nothing was wrong.
"Excuse me a second." I ducked into the hall and fumbled for the keycard to the room I shared with April. Our room was quiet and empty and, most importantly, not pink. I leaned my guitar bag in a corner and let out a breath I hadn't known I was holding, then lay back on the bed and dialed Gemma.
"We're not supposed to be out here alone," I said when she picked up. "When are you coming back?"
She sighed. "Hi, Luce. My brother is fine, thanks for asking. The bullet went straight through him without hitting any organs."
"I heard! I'm glad he's okay! I'm sorry, I should have asked first. But do you think you're coming back soon?"
"No, Luce. I don't. What's the matter? Do you need something?"
"A tour manager. A babysitter for these giant children you ditched me with, so I can concentrate on music instead of being the adult in the room. Never mind. I shouldn't have called, and I'm sorry I bothered you. I hope your brother gets well soon."
I disconnected. We should have been able to handle a few weeks on the road without a tour manager. Lots of bands did fine without one, but those were probably real bands, where everyone had a vested interest; I'd played solo until the label hired these so-called professionals to back me on tour.
Hewitt let me in again when I knocked. Inside the fridge, two large bottles had been crammed in sideways, gin and tequila. The painted mini-fridge left my fingertips pink and tacky. My prints made me complicit, I supposed. I pulled out the tequila and took a long slug straight from the bottle. Cheap, astringent stuff. No wonder they were chilling it. The armchair under the window was paint-free, so I made my way to it with the tequila, trying not to touch anything else.
"Well, April," I began, answering her question as if I hadn't left, "since you asked, my day started at five this morning, with stops at two different TV morning shows. Then I did a radio call-in show. Then I spent two hours on the phone in a station parking lot arguing with the label about why we still don't have our new T-shirts. Then I did a couple of acoustic songs for a local music podcast, ate a highly mediocre burrito, and came back here to find you've been far more productive than me. I mean, why did I waste all that time promoting our show tomorrow night when I could have been helping you redecorate?"
They were all glare-resistant; not even April had the decency to look uneasy. They knew I had the power to fire them if I wanted, but I wouldn't. We got along too well onstage.
It wasn't in me to maintain stern disinterest. "So where did you get the paint?"
April grinned. "We looked up where the nearest liquor store was, right? We had to run across the highway to get there, and there were like six lanes, and it was a little, uh, harrowing. So on the way back, we tried to find a better place to cross, like maybe there was a crosswalk somewhere, and then we passed this Superwally Daycare that had a room being redone and it was completely deserted, right? But the door was open, I guess to air it out."
A groan escaped me, and I took another chug of tequila. "You stole from a daycare?"
"A Superwally Daycare," said JD. "They won't be going broke on our account, I promise you. Anyway, we also went back out again to the actual Superwally and spent some money there that we wouldn't have spent otherwise, so it cancels out."
I was almost afraid to ask. "What else did you buy?"
"That's the best part." Hewitt flipped the light switch.
The room lit up. The television and the wall behind the headboard had been painted over with a glow-in-the-dark wash. On the wall backing the bathroom, our band logo: a sparking cannon. April's drumsticks glowed too; if only they'd stuck to painting things they owned.
"I hope one of you pulled a Cheshire Cat, because I need somebody to punch in the teeth."
JD's voice came from beside me. "Like I said: we considered an accent wall, but then we decided against it."
I put the bottle to my mouth to keep myself from saying something I'd regret later. Dozed off for a second in the chair, then started awake when the lights came back on. April had disappeared, probably back to our room; JD was asleep on his bed; Hewitt was singing to himself in the bathroom. I might have rested my eyes for longer than I thought.
The tequila walloped me as I lurched to my feet. I tried to channel Gemma, our absent tour manager. She'd gone home three weeks before, after her brother was shot eating lunch at a mall. The label hadn't wanted us to keep touring without her, but I had promised we'd be fine. I shouldn't have called her earlier; this wasn't her fault. Anyway, even if she'd been here today, she'd have been driving with me, managing the promotional appearances so I could play the pure artist. The band would still have been left to their devices, though they'd probably have thought twice about pulling a stunt like this with her around to ream them out.
What would Gemma say? I channeled her to mutter, "If and when the hotel bills us for damages, it's coming out of your salaries. You shouldn't need a babysitter when I leave you alone for one single day. I'm supposed to be the artist here. If anybody is entitled to pull shit, it's me. You're supposed to be the professionals, dammit."
Neither of them responded. That was as far as I needed to take playing grownup. It was the label's fault they hadn't sent a new tour manager, and the label's fault the band got stuck at a suburban hotel all day while I left with the van to do promotional work solo. My jealousy that they kept bonding and I kept getting left out was best tamped down.
I took their tequila with me and went next door. April lay on the far bed, her back to me, though I had a feeling she was pretending to sleep. The bed looked tempting, but my face broke out if I didn't scrub off my makeup, and I reeked of the podcaster's unfiltered cigarettes. I kicked my smoky clothes to the corner and stepped into the shower. Closed my eyes and let the water hit me. Shampooed my hair, eyes still closed.
I didn't immediately recognize the next sound. Like a school bell, except it kept on signaling. My hazy brain took more than a few seconds to declare it a fire alarm.
"Shit," April said, loud enough for me to hear over the shower. "What is that?"
I shut off the water and regretfully pulled my smoky clothes back onto my wet self. Ditched the underwear, stuffed the bra under my arm. Shoved my feet into my boots, sans socks. "Fire alarm. Though if those yahoos in the next room turn out to be the cause, we're leaving them here and moving on as a duo."
My backpack still lay at the foot of the bed. Wallet, phone, van keys, laptop, tour bible were all in there. I dropped the smoky bra into it, then slung backpack and guitar bag over my right shoulder. If we were talking real fire, those were the possessions I meant to keep.
April trailed me down the hallway, where a flashing light joined the clanging bell. We ran into the guys in the stairwell. JD was naked except boxer shorts, gig bag, and tattoos. Hewitt wore the hotel bathrobe, covered in paint; he'd grabbed his guitar too. One look told me neither of them had pulled the alarm. Other people joined us on the stairs, hurried but not panicked. They gave the guys a wide berth.
The stairs spilled us out into a side parking lot. A crowd already milled on the asphalt, watching the building. A few people sat in their cars, a better idea. A gust of cold wind hit me as I hit the pavement, plastering my wet clothes to my body.
"Get in the van," JD said. "Can't let our singer get sick running around with soapy hair."
"Says the bassist in boxers."
He shrugged, though goose bumps had risen on his arms and legs.
He, April, and I walked past the crowd to where I had parked the van in the brightest spot available when I got back an hour ago – was it only an hour ago? I fumbled for the keys in my bag, and we piled in.
"Where'd Hewitt go?" I asked, turning on the van and cranking the heat. My suitcase was still in the room, along with any warm clothes I had with me.
"He hung back to figure out what was going on," JD said.
"So it wasn't you guys?"
"Ha ha. You think we'd pull a stunt like that?"
"You do remember that an hour ago you were showing me a DIY hotel paint job, right?"
"That's different. It didn't hurt anybody. I'd never."
I could have pointed out they'd cause problems for whomever was responsible for cleaning their room after we checked out, or that they might hurt my relationship with the label. But I knew what he meant. Leave these guys too long and they'd get into some stupid human tricks, but they wouldn't have risked panicking sleeping kids. They wouldn't have wanted somebody tripping and falling on the stairs because of a prank. I was pretty sure. I'd only been playing with them for eight months now, but I thought I knew them at least that well.
The back door slid open and Hewitt climbed into the third row. "It's not a fire. Bomb threat."
JD frowned. "Maybe we should get out of here."
"We can't go," I said, giving him a look. "Most of our stuff is still upstairs. Besides, if it's a bomb threat, it'll look bad for us to leave, considering everyone in that stairwell was already giving you guys the side-eye."
JD wasn't calmed. "Shouldn't they be moving people farther from the building if they think there's a bomb? Or going through it with robots or dogs or something?"
Hewitt nodded. "They're waiting for a bomb team."
"Are bomb sniffing dogs a thing?" April asked. "I thought they were just for drugs."
"There are definitely bomb sniffing dogs," said JD. "Also bomb sniffing bees and bomb sniffing rats, but I think those are used in combat zones, not hotels."
A thought nagged at me. "Wait. Where are the fire trucks? Or the police? I thought I heard sirens, but they aren't here."
Hewitt shrugged. "Busy night, I guess."
We watched for a while. I guessed the people still standing in the parking lot hadn't thought to bring their keys out. A few parents juggled children from hip to hip. I leaned my head against the window and closed my eyes. The others did the same, except JD. He sat tapping a foot against the frame, hard enough to make the whole van shake.
"Will you stop?" April tossed an empty soda can at him. "Try to get some sleep."
That wasn't going to happen. I nudged him. "Grab your bass."
He cocked an eyebrow at me. "What?"
"Your bass. Come on."
I climbed into the backseat and returned a moment later with my little practice amp, the one I'd bought with babysitting money when I was fifteen, along with my crappy first guitar. It wasn't the best sounding amp, but it would do for my purpose. About fifty cold, scared looking people still stood in the parking lot, the ones who hadn't grabbed their keys or their wallets, who couldn't escape to their cars. If they were stuck, the least we could do was distract them for a little while.
JD found an outlet on the cement island by the parking lot's gate, and we both jacked our guitars. A couple of people reoriented themselves to watch us instead of the hotel.
"What are we playing?" JD asked.
"You pick," I said. "Something cheerful. Something that'll work even if they can't hear the vocals. 'Almost Home,' maybe?"
He didn't answer, but instead started playing the opening bass line. I followed with my guitar part, and then started to sing as loud as I could without straining my voice. I hadn't noticed April following us, but when the second verse started, a scratchy beat locked in with JD, and I glanced behind me to see she was playing a pizza box.
The parents brought their kids over – I imagined them grateful for any diversion at that point – and then others followed. The hotel must have appreciated the distraction too, since they didn't stop us. The police might have taken issue with a two AM concert, but they still hadn't arrived.
We had the crowd now. When we played "Blood and Diamonds," a teenager said, "Mom! They're from SuperStreaming! They're famous!" My surge of pride accompanying that statement had gotten more familiar, but I still wasn't used to it. I'd never expected anyone to know my songs.
Hewitt had discarded the bathrobe somewhere. I made a mental note to make sure he found it again so we didn't get stuck paying, then remembered it was covered in paint, so we probably owned it now in any case. He danced in front of us wearing a kilt and a band sweatshirt. At least that way the crowd knew who was playing for them. If I were a better shill – if I didn't feel self-conscious doing it – I would have told them about our show the next night at the Peach.
We played eight songs before a haggard-looking hotel manager made his way to us. His upside-down nametag read “Efram Dawkins,” and his hair was flat on one side. I wondered where he'd been sleeping.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"It's okay, not a problem, we'll stop." I raised a hand in appeasement.
"No, it's not that. I mean, you probably should stop, but not because there's any problem with the music. I appreciate that you've kept people entertained. But – the police aren't coming. Not before morning."
I laid my hand across my guitar strings. "False alarm? We can go back in?"
"Well, you see, we can't let people back in after a bomb threat without the police clearing the hotel, but the police aren't coming, so we can't let anyone back in at all." The manager massaged the back of his neck with his hand. "Company policy."
A woman who had been dancing with her kid a moment before turned on the guy. "Wait, so you won't let us go back to our rooms to sleep or to get our keys? What are we supposed to do?"
Dawkins shook his head. "I don't know. I'm just telling you what the police said."
"Fine, then you're going to give us a ride to another hotel from your chain, and put us up there, right?"
"I'd love to, but..." He paused, glancing around like he hoped someone might bail him out and finish his sentence. Nobody came to his rescue. "I'd love to, but every single hotel in the area received the same threat."
"Every hotel in the chain?"
"No. Every hotel."
"Surely not all the threats are credible?"
Dawkins shrugged. "The police seem to think they're all credible, or they can't tell which are credible and which aren't."
I looked at all the exhausted faces. A minute before they'd been dancing, cheering. Now, they looked like 2 AM again.
"This is ridiculous," said a man in saggy white briefs, clutching an attaché case in front of him. "I wouldn't travel anymore at all if I didn't have to. In the last month I've been through three airport evacuations and one 'shelter-in-place' at a restaurant."
An elderly woman spoke. "We must be reasonably safe, or they'd have somebody here. A squad car, a fire chief, a dog. Somebody. They must have some kind of triage going to prioritize."
Dawkins shrugged again.
"Okay, look," I tried. "What about mitigating the risk? Letting one person in at a time to at least get their keys or wallets?"
"I'd love to, but what if there is a bomb? What if it goes off while even one person is in there? Or what if one of you set it? I can't let you do that."
Now my making-the-best-of-it crowd from a few minutes before all eyed each other like there was a killer in our midst. A little boy started crying. "Look," said a father with a sleeping toddler draped over his shoulder. "We need someplace to go."
April stood up from the curb. "Um, I have an idea. A place, you know?"
She wasn't much for public speaking. When the hotel guests all turned her way, she raised her pizza box as a shield. "There's an unlocked Superwally daycare down the road." She pointed. "They were repainting the playroom in the front, but the paint was low-odor and there's a whole napping room in the back with mats. You have to cross the road, but there aren't too many cars out anymore, right? It's walkable."
April and Hewitt led the group over, while Dawkins made phone calls to the local police to make sure nobody got arrested for trespassing. That left JD and me standing in an empty hotel parking lot.
He sighed. "Wanna play a little more?"
"Might as well."
I'd quit singing an hour before to save my voice, but JD and I were still playing at 4 AM when April and Hewitt made it back.
"Don't you two ever get tired?" Hewitt asked, collapsing onto the grass.
I held out my hand. "My calluses have calluses. Anyway, I'm not awake. I'm dreaming this."
"I'd appreciate if you woke up, then. This is ridiculous."
I'd been running on adrenaline, but now that everyone was gone, exhaustion washed over me. We unplugged the guitars and dragged ourselves back over to the van. I settled into the crumb-covered middle bench, where I could at least get horizontal even if I couldn't stretch out.
"So, where to?" JD asked from the driver's seat.
April, from the bench in front of mine. "You're still too drunk to drive. I think we all are."
"I know I am." Hewitt hoisted the gin bottle. "I've been topping up."
"Anyway," I said. "There's no place to go. We've got a show here tomorrow, which is today, so there's no point in driving anyplace else."
"We could go to the next town to sleep."
Hewitt shook his head. "If they evacuated all the hotels in town, every single person who managed to walk out with a car key in their hand when the alarm went off, has been asleep in a hotel room in the next town for an hour now. Every town in every direction."
"Night in the van it is." I closed my eyes. "Still more comfortable than my first place in New York. Bigger, too."
"Whoa," said April. "Did she just share a personal detail? She has a past?"
My eyes were still closed so I didn't know if she saw me stick out my tongue at her. "What are you talking about?"
"You're not the most forthcoming person. We've been in this van for eight months and we barely know anything about you."
"There's nothing to tell."
"That's why we've invented an origin story for you from the two things we know. Three now: You taught yourself to play guitar in high school, and you're like the last person in the world to get a label deal from busking on the street. That's it. That's all we've got, other than this new tidbit, so we've made up the rest. Your parents are werewolves, but you didn't get the gene."
The others chimed in, alternating with each other. "You traded your family cow for a magic guitar." "You sold your soul at a crosswalk for the ability to play." "You turned down a life of riches for a chance to play in a band." "You're from Antarctica, which is why you turn the AC up so high when you're driving, to feel like home."
They were joking, but I caught something serious behind it. A challenge to let them in. But what to say? What difference did it make that I'd run away at fifteen rather than tell my frum parents and six siblings I was queer? That I didn't have that word yet, or any other, only the conviction it wasn't safe to say the words I didn't have? Or how just before, little Chava Leah Kanner had wandered into a street fair and heard an electric guitar for the first time? That I'd looked at the guitarist and thought "that's me" without any roadmap for the journey, and everything afterward had been an attempt to reconcile who I'd thought I was supposed to be with who I really was? How when I left Brooklyn for my one off-the-path aunt's apartment in Washington Heights, after months of planning, that first subway ride was a thousand times as long as any drive I'd made since? How I'd only been told of that aunt's existence by someone from an organization that helped people leave the community, and knew I'd be erased from the family in the same way? I couldn't articulate any of that to these people, even after eight months in a van together. Maybe someday, when I trusted they wouldn't joke about it.
"Your version is way more exciting than the truth, I promise. Like I said, there's nothing to tell."
"Sure," April said. "Just because it's not exciting doesn't mean we don't want to hear it."
She sounded more annoyed than I thought she had the right to be, so I tried to salvage the situation. "But how did you guess about the family cow? I never mentioned Bossie before."
"I knew it!" JD's voice held sarcasm and triumph. "There's always a cow."
The voices quieted, and I knew they were waiting for me to add something real, but I didn't, and the silence stretched until JD's breathing changed in the seat next to mine and April started to snore.
"Hey," Hewitt whispered as I started to drift. "Luce, are you still awake?"
"Awake enough. What?"
"Percentage impressed versus percentage dismayed?"
"Sorry?" I asked.
"The hotel room."
"Ten percent impressed."
"Only ten? C'mon. It was awesome."
He couldn't see my smile. "Fine. Fifty percent impressed. You get points for creativity. The glo-paint was a nice touch."
If anyone stayed awake after that, I wasn't awake to notice.
Chapter 2 - Rosemary
Another Happy Superwally Employee
Our goals are speed and efficiency.
Hang on! Don't hang up!
You are valued but replaceable.
The last poster was Rosemary's least favorite among the six mandatory inspirational posters adorning her workspace walls. The company sent new ones every three months, along with suggestions for their arrangement. Rosemary dutifully hung them, dutifully snapped daily photos of herself in her work environment to send along to headquarters. Her morning photo had even made the company website once, under the caption "Another Happy Superwally Employee."
She wasn't a happy employee. Not a sad or disgruntled one either, just indifferent. Every morning she woke, ate breakfast with her parents, and went back to her bedroom, where she'd transformed her childhood desk into a Superwally Vendor Service Center. Beyond the work station, out of the company camera's view, were posters of the Iris Branches Band and Brain in a Jar and Whileaway; even though she'd bought them from Superwally, with her employee discount, they still weren't part of an approved workplace environment. She used them to remind herself that she didn't belong to Superwally: if she was valued but replaceable, so was her employer. In theory, anyway. She'd never had any other job.
At 8:29 she turned off the music player on her ancient Superwally Basic Hoodie, the school-issued one she'd had since seventh grade, placing it on the charging pad by her bed. She slipped her work Hoodie over her head and adjusted her mic.
"Welcome, Rosemary! Have a productive day!" flashed in her vision. She waved it away.
The first call, somewhere between 8:30 and 8:35 every morning, was always a test call from Quality Control. She knew that even though they never identified themselves as such.
Her earpiece chimed at 8:32. She answered on the second chime, optimal. A message praising her quick action flashed in the corner of her vision, and the hoodspace resolved into a room with a small, uncluttered wooden desk and dusky blue walls designed to project calm.
"Good morning, Vendor Services. I'm Rosemary."
"Good morning." An avatar of a gray-bearded Sikh man materialized in the virtual chair opposite her. "I was wondering if you'd help me with a problem I'm having."
She didn't bother skimming his culture and gender specs like she would for a real customer. "Sure, Jeremy, how may I help you?"
The man tensed, went still. "Can't you even pretend you don't know this is me? We're recorded. We get evaluated."
Rosemary sighed. "Sorry. Right. Stick to the script. 'What can I help you with today? You are a valued vendor in the Superwally family and I'm sure I can find a solution for you quickly and efficiently.'"
"Thank you. Our fulfillment interface is throwing a glitch. I can't see which items you need us to replenish in your Tucson warehouse."
"Certainly, valued customer. If you give me your vendor ID number, I'm sure we can sort this out."
Jeremy, wearing the day's bogus vendor avatar, gave her the day's bogus vendor ID number and sat watching as she solved the day's bogus issue. This wasn't a hard one at all, but she resisted the urge to tell him to throw something more difficult at her. Somebody would, sometime during the day, she hoped. Those problems were all that made the job interesting.
She pictured Jeremy sitting in his own home vendor service center, somewhere in – where had he said that one time? His workspace walls no doubt looked the same as hers, but maybe he kept his own posters out beyond the camera's range, too. She wondered, not for the first time, if he also still lived with his parents. She thought he might be around her own age, twenty-four, but he could as easily be thirty or forty.
His avatars didn't give any clue, since Quality Control were allowed to vary their looks day to day. Everyone else's avs were set to age thirty-three, an age the company had at some point determined to project the right mix of experience and youthful enthusiasm. The most she had ever gotten from Jeremy, in all his early morning test calls, was his name and that he lived someplace starting with a V. Virginia, she thought. Or Vermont. Neither of those datapoints was necessarily true either, but it was more than she knew about any of her other co-workers. The rest existed as a long list of employee performance ratings to compete against.
She took seventy-two seconds to solve the morning's problem, and another Timely Service message rewarded her efficiency. Once Jeremy had gone, she flipped to clearview, straightened her desk, and waited for her first real customer. It didn't take long. At 8:47, the earpiece chimed again. She forced a smile and answered.
"Good morning, Vendor Services. My name is Rosemary. How may I help you?" Good job! Your customer can hear your smile! scrolled at the corner of her eye. She waved away the bonus point.
"We've got a massive problem this morning." The voice came first, then an avatar of a tall young Korean man appeared beside her virtual wooden desk. It was a high-end av, fine enough to show her the tension behind his expression.
"I'm sure I can find a solution quickly and efficiently. May I have your vendor ID number?" Her words, from her avatar's mouth. Per company policy, her avatar wore her photographic likeness, but aged up to thirty-three, with neater hair and makeup. She was glad they didn't care whether she wore makeup in real life, even if they did insist she get dressed in the company uniform every day. They spun that as "look your best to work your best" but she knew about the tech woven into the fabric, the better to quantify you with, my dear.
He rattled off his vendor ID, one she didn't recognize. Rosemary entered it, trying to conceal her excitement at the vendor name that popped up. "Can you confirm your ve
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