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EP265: We are Ted Tuscadero for President

By Chris Dahlen
Read by: Cheyenne Wright
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All stories by Chris Dahlen
All stories read by Cheyenne Wright
Rated PG-13: For sexual situations and adult language.

Show Notes:

  • Election day is always better with clones!
  • Mr. Dahlen is editorial director of Kill Screen, a new print quarterly magazine about videogames.
  • Feedback for Episode 257: Union Dues: The Sum of Its Parts.
  • Next week… We travel to Japan!

We Are Ted Tuscadero For President
By Chris Dahlen

My name is Ted Tuscadero. And I want to be your President.

I say that with a humble heart. I realize that even after eight stellar years in the Senate, some of you are still getting to know me. And I’ll admit, I am not perfect. The other day, when I told a VFW in Littleton I would blast Iran to glass, and at the same exact time I swore off the war at a town hall in Concord? My bad. Or the time that three of me showed up for the big debate in Manchester, and we got in a fistfight over who was going on the air? Yeah, the chattering classes had a few laughs over that one.

And that little incident before the holidays, when I crashed, as lit as a Christmas tree, into a pole and my car exploded, killing me instantly and taking a mailbox, a transformer and a barn cat with me? It looked bad, I know. But that proxy was on the fritz. That’s not me. That’s not who I am. And the more we talk, the better you get to know me, the more you’ll see what I mean.

Keep reading…

#

I am a lucky man. Of the hundred of me that fanned out across New Hampshire for the presidential primary campaign, I landed in Fairport, a cute spot on the coast. My ex-wife would’ve called it “darling.” I didn’t even know New Hampshire had a coast until they drove me here and got me a room, looking over the harbor, the tugboats, the cobblestone streets. The whole place is loaded with money and photo ops.

I like to think it’s payback for a job well done. For the last six months I’ve been shaking hands, holding town halls, and listening to cranky seniors and eager young back-to-the-earthers. I’ve eaten food on a stick that belonged in the trash. I’ve honed my laugh lines and I’ve sold my vision.

The primary’s in January, and my opponent, Billy LaMontagne, has local roots. Three-time governor of neighboring Maine, well known and well liked in the area, LaMontagne doesn’t use proxies: he’s stumping the state all by himself. But he doesn’t need proxies when everyone with four teeth or fewer knows his face and thinks they can trust it. I’m the insurgent from New Jersey with everything to prove.

Here’s what the focus groups say about me: “City slicker.” “Promises anything to anyone.” “Will take away our right to bear arms.” That one really gets me – LaMontagne likes to wave around an assault rifle during deer season to show all the yokels that he likes red meat and Milwaukee’s worst as much as the rest of them. And fine, next to that, I do look slick. It’s called “owning a comb and a necktie,” and I’ve been doing it since Princeton, thanks.

LaMontagne can crack the screen, I’ll grant him that. When this is all over, he should really get his own line of barbeque sauce. But we’re talking about a national election. The guy has a loose mouth and a small mind and if he gets the nomination, the Republicans won’t even run against him: they’ll kick back and watch him destroy himself. So, this race isn’t just about me. It’s my duty as a loyal Democrat to put this guy down.

But back to me. I have two jobs here in Fairport. First and foremost is the usual campaign stuff – shake a lot of hands, get a lot of money. But I also have a project. I was explaining it to an eighth-grader the other day. She was doing a thing for her school paper – which has a teeny readership made up of a totally non-voting audience, but hey, any press is good, and I never talk above an eighth-grade level anyway. We sat in the school gym, with old crumbly murals and the outlines of kids painted on the wall, all kind of round and blank – probably just the same kid painted over and over.  Above it all flew a giant American flag, and I made sure it was in the shot when she took my picture.

“So, um, Senator Tuscadero -” starts the kid.

“Call me Ted,” I say, flashing my brilliant white teeth.

“Um, I’m not sure how to ask this, but – are you the real Senator Tuscadero, or -”

“I’m a proxy,” I say, smiling again. I never let anyone feel awkward, especially about this. “I’m one of the hundred proxies in New Hampshire, here for the original Ted Tuscadero, who’s down in D.C. doing the work of the people. The proxies are here to give the people of New Hampshire -”

The first-in-the-nation primary voters, who can set me up with that sweet, sweet early momentum, I’m thinking -

“ – A close look at my governing style, my experience, and my vision for a better America.”

“So you’re called a ‘proxy.’ Do you ever call yourselves ‘clones’?”

I laugh again gently. “We could, but we prefer the term ‘proxy.’”  (“Clone” tested badly.)

Next we get to why I’m in Fairport: my special project, which will show the voters what a doer and a leader I am.

“So Amy, I’d like to tell you what I’m here to do. You may have heard that Fairport would like to build a windmill. A state-of-the-art, clean green energy solution that would cut your bills and make us safe from the bad guys across the sea.”

Amy nods her head up and down and cocks it to the side, like she’d seen somebody do on TV. Maybe Couric.

“That’s on Parakeet Ave,” she says.

“Exactly. That’s the site they chose. And the trouble is, someone else – a man named Jim McSmit – bought the land, and he’d like to put a different business there.”

“A bar?”

“That’s right. A bar.”

Here’s what the eighth-grader can’t put in her newspaper: the “restaurant and bar” would be called Body Shots. It’s a biker-themed titty bar, dropped right here on the snooty seacoast. The neighbors for a mile around are batshit about this, about how it’ll look, who it’ll draw, the growl of barely-ridden Harleys in the parking lot. But the zoning doesn’t prohibit it. Somebody needs to work out a deal. And that’s what I’m here to do.

My campaign aide, Rachael, subtly taps her watch. Time to wrap this up. I answer a couple more questions and shook my little reporter’s hand. We also give her some pins and a pamphlet for her parents. “TOM TUSCADERO: A REAL LEADER FOR AMERICA.”

“Don’t forget to vote!” I wink at her as they whisk me out the door.

#

I’m here with two aides. One is my driver – after the Christmas crash, we all got drivers – and the other is Rachael, my aide. Also my lover. And by “lover,” I mean, ”yeeeeeeeee-haw.” She has a dual degree in poli-sci and psychology, though I’ll be frank, that’s not the first thing I noticed when they assigned her to me. A slender brunette just out of Swarthmore, she’s an idealist who still believes in the process. She loves politics. She’s smitten with me, too, and she’s also kind of fascinated by me. She’s drawn to my meteoric career – but also, to my complex personality.

“What have we got today?” I ask.

“The senior citizens’ center at 10, lunch with the chamber of commerce at noon, and dialing-for-dollars in the afternoon.”

I wince. I hate dialing for dollars. I call everyone I’ve known my whole life and ask them for money. It feels crass, plus, sometimes our lists get mixed up. I’ll end up calling my third-grade English teacher and just as I’m about to reminisce, she tells me that another proxy already rang her up with the same “you walked me to the school nurse” memory. It always makes me feel like a phony.

But before all that, we head downtown. I swing by Main Street at least once a day. Grab a latte from the locally owned café dead center downtown. The same apple Danish: fatty I know, but it’s comfort food and oh boy, the way they bake ‘em it’s like an angel crying on your tongue. And then I swing by and spar with the guys at the barbershop. I can always count on five or six voters waiting for a cut. This barber is slower than death.

Joe the barber hates me. He’s a Republican from way back. He probably cast his first vote for Lincoln. Every time I set foot in his shop he greets me the same way: “You cost too goddamn much.”

“Hi Joe,” I say, smiling and winking at his peanut gallery. “What’s the good news today?”

“The radio says they want to make more of you, for the general election,” says Joe. “It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars. We have too many politicians crawling around the country as it is.”

“Well, Joe, as you know, making more proxies is cheap money after the first one.” This is true. When they perfected the cloning process, they found an interesting trick: cloning one person costs … well, it’s a state secret how much it costs, so you can guess how much that is. But the first time you do it, you make a kind of a “mold” – that’s how they explained it to me, anyway – and from that mold, you can pour as many copies as you want for a few bucks a shot.

“I’m a bargain, Joe. You get to tell me off in person every day!” I wink.

I take a quick glance to see how the other men react. But I notice that most of them are looking out the window at Rachael, who’s standing outside on her phone. It’s freezing, but she always waits outside at the barbershop.

A little more chitchat, one more winning smile and I’m moving on.

I’m starting to think I know this town better than the one where I live. I know where to get the best martini and the freshest lobster roll. I can practically count the votes here by name.

“You know what, Rach? When I’m done with the White House, we should come back here. I would make a really good Mayor.”

“First things first, Senator,” she says, and steers me back to the car.

#

Back at the hotel, I get out of the shower to see Rachael tapping at her laptop. She snaps it closed as soon as she hears me.

“Bad news in the polls?” I ask, smiling – not my politician smile, but my real one. Only Rachael gets the real one.

“Yes, but not in yours. I was actually reading about the Republicans. Word is, Governor Kewt just got himself a sex scandal.”

“Hot damn! Was he caught with a dead girl? A live boy? Both?”

“Daughter of a senator – scratch that, two daughters – and they let it slip on Twitter. They get a book deal, he’s down for the count.”

That’s it! The Republicans are done! Kewt’s the only candidate they had this year who could walk down the street without wearing out his knuckles. I feel relief and desire and lust. I have this thing in the bag. I can picture myself … well, um, yeah, myself … walking into the Oval Office and dropping my loafers right on the top of that desk.

She responds to my smile. She loves this game, almost as much as I do. I know what you’re probably thinking: I picked her as my aide because va-vooom. But believe me, I’m lucky to have her. She’s been working on campaigns since junior high. This is her first real gig on a national campaign, and she already acts like a vet. I would be lost without her.

And I’d be lost on nights like this, too. Back in Washington I was out every night and on the phone the minute I got home. I’d call old friends, new colleagues, people I had to cajole, constituents who thought I’d never remember their names. I loved to talk to people. But now that I’m … well, I can’t really do that now. None of us proxies are allowed to make casual calls, and these aren’t “my” friends anymore. It would creep people out.

But Rachael? Rachael is all mine.

“We have to get up in five hours,” she says, pulling me into bed.

“So let’s get three hours of sleep.”

“If you’re lucky I’ll make it one.”

#

And so I’m tired and not in the mood the next morning when my phone rings. It was someone I didn’t want to talk to, and I had to schlep all the way outside to meet him.

I pull on some clothes and go to the street to find Harry Angler idling at the curb, in a rental car, his window halfway down. A doughy guy with a potato-shaped head and a comb-over like bent hay, he had, as always, no facial expression whatsoever. And here he is, getting me up first thing in the morning.

Angler’s the guy who gets stuff done for me in D.C. When I first found him, early in my career, he was just a two-bit election-fixer working for dead-end campaigns. You know the racket – running push polls to make the other guy sound like Hitler’s lost grandson, or spreading photos of an uptight Christian blitzed at a gay bar. Angler didn’t have much of a resume. But I saw something there I could use, and now he works for me – I mean, the original me, the me in D.C. – on all of my campaigns.

That also means he’s in charge of the proxies. He swings by to check in on me every couple of weeks. I used to have him on the phone twenty times a day, and now I only get time with him when he feels like showing up.

“Harry, hi,” I say, leaning casually on the window. He just pushes a poll in my hand. “This is confidential from the campaign.”

I skim the pages. “I don’t see any surprises.”

“LaMontagne’s gaining ground with 50-65 year old divorcees. You have a lot of those here, no?”

Could you at least turn off the car so I don’t have to talk over your engine?

“Oh sure, I’m working their votes,” I say. “And listen, I also made some headway on the windmill project -”

“That’s good. We have no room for error here. And don’t forget, Windswept Industries needs that thing built, or the money they’re sending us is gone.”

We chitchat a little more, but I can tell he’s eager to move on. Dammit, I think, would you treat me – the original me – this way? How would me-in-D.C. act if he saw you act like this?

But again, I didn’t say anything. Because hard as it is to admit, I need him.

Sounding casual, I ask: “Listen, so, any movement on the leaderboard?”

“The leaderboard’s always moving,” he answered.

“So how am I doing?”

“You’ve done great work here,” says Angler. “Great work. And we expect even more.” And that’s all I get out of him before he leaves.

#

“Can I ask you a question?” says Joe the barber, a straight razor over my temple.

“Shoot,” I say. I was there, for once, to get an actual haircut, and we had the shop to ourselves. Seeing Angler’s scruffy dome made me want to get my own cleaned up. Have to look my best for all those lonely old women whose votes weren’t in the bag.

“You’re Ted Tuscadero, and there’s Senator Ted Tuscadero down in Washington. And then there are ninety-nine more of you running around.”

“That’s the headcount.” Well, it’s a hundred minus the one we lost on Christmas. And I think Rachael said another one just “dropped out.” I’m not sure what that means-I was eavesdropping.

“So when this election’s over, what do you all do?”

“Well, during the election as you know, I’ll be traveling the country for the campaign. After that? We’ll still represent the President, and push his agenda. You remember when people joked that President Obama was -everywhere- whenever he had something to push. I can really do it.”

“So you stay on the road, while the first Senator goes to the White House?”

I know I shouldn’t tell him. But I can’t resist.

“Here’s the thing,” I say, lowering my tone. “We have something called the -leaderboard.- It’s how we rank all the proxies.”

Joe is shaving me now, getting things oh-so-smooth around my ear.

“The way it works, when you help the campaign, you move up. If you screw up, you move down. The proxies near the top get the choice assignments. And when the election’s over, the top one gets – well, I shouldn’t say.”

“Let me guess. You get some time in the White House?”

“Exactly,” I answer. “The original Ted can take long vacations while I stay in Washington. I get to share power with myself.”

Joe thinks it over, but he doesn’t seem convinced. “I dunno. He’s you. You’re him. Would you give up the top seat? For even one single day?”

He catches me for a second. But I shoot him an easy smile and say, “Well, I do like my vacations.”

Joe laughs. Score.

“I know you think you’re doing us voters a favor. But the thing is, people don’t like politicians,” says Joe. “We only like ‘em at their funerals.”

“I care about the windmill. And I care about this town. You see me every day!”

“Ted, if you lived here, I’d hate you year-round!”

“Maybe you just don’t know me well enough,” I grin.

On my way out the door, my cell phone rings. I have to take this call: it’s none other than Jim McSmit, the guy whose nudie bar stands between me and the White House. He suggests we meet for lunch. Rachael had been working for days to set this up, and now he calls me, and names the restaurant. It’s not the one I would’ve picked – but only because I’m not a member. Yet.

McSmit meets me at the 10 Congress Club. It’s a swank new social club, with a membership fee in the thousands and a line of old and new money waiting to pay. McSmit, shall we say, is “new money.” One look at the guy and you hid your wallet. Beady eyes squinted between a smooth-shaved dome and a bushy handlebar moustache, and his leather jacket was filthy. First thing he warned me: “Don’t swear in here. They’ll fucking fine you.”

My goal here was to see if we could settle this at a cost the city council could swallow. And it wasn’t starting well. We started off on his turf, on his clock, and he knew that he had what I needed.

“Here’s my thing,” he says. “I’m just a guy making a living on beer, tits and wings. Not a Washington big shot like you.”

“Hey, I think I know a little more about your situation than you’d think,” I correct him. “I ran a small business myself.”

“Yeah? What was that?”

“My law practice.”

McSmit scoffs, at that but I ignore him. “I was a trial lawyer. Win a case, and you’re rich; lose, and you just wasted a year on nothing. I know what American businessmen put on the line.”

“What I’ve heard, you won plenty of cases. Did pretty well for yourself. Why’d you even get into politics? What do they pay you in the Senate?”

“It’s not really about the pay,” I say, realizing no one ever really asks me about this. “I love it for the same reason I love a trial. I love going into a court and persuading people – because that’s half the battle, not just having the facts and the evidence, but convincing them you’re their guy. I’m good at that. Put me in front of anyone, face to face, and I can get them to hear me out. And when they do, they usually agree with me.”

McSmit cuts me off. “Don’t count on getting any agreement from me. Seems you just came here to tell me to get out of town. And nobody tells me that. Ever.”

Tough talk. But I’ve heard tougher.  “Okay. Then what should I tell you?”

“What’ll you give me if I nix the restaurant?”

I laugh. “I’m not writing you a check, if that’s what you’re getting at. Election officials take offense at that kind of thing.”

“I’m not fucking slow, I know you can’t just -give- me something. But even if you lose the race, you’re a fucking Senator. A favor from you could be worth something. And anyway, LaMontagne’s people have been dragging their dicks in the sand about what they’ll do for me.”

This surprises me. “You’re saying LaMontagne’s backing you up on this?”

“Well, yeah, I talk to some of his people. He doesn’t talk to me directly, like you. There aren’t as many of him, so his time’s worth a lot more.” His grin went halfway to a snarl.

“LaMontagne will never make it to the White House. If I win here, I win the White House. And I will remember the people who helped me along the way.”

McSmit goes silent. He swirls his drink around. “Well, that’s fucking sweet, but what can you do for me down there? LaMontagne’s right over in Maine. Lots of girls in Maine want to work for a Body Shots, ‘specially in this economy. Lots of local talent up there. You know they have a topless donut shop up near the capital?”

“So I guess you’re saying you don’t want me to go to Washington and save the economy,” I joke. That gets a genuine laugh out of him, and for a second there, I don’t want to kill the guy.

But by the time the tab comes, I know we’re done here. And he hammers it in as he reaches for the tab and looks at the fines that the maitre d- was quietly ticking up every time he opened his stupid mouth.

“Sorry I can’t help you. But hey, I’m the one who spent $240 to tell you what’s on my mind.”

#

“What’s plan B?” Rachael asks back at the hotel, where I don’t even feel like sex.

I sigh. “We can try to seize the lot through eminent domain, but that’s a scorched earth approach. It’s bound to tick off voters left, right, and center.” I groan. “Maybe I can find another buyer for the land.”

“But LaMontagne will find a way to block you,” she says. And that stings. Here’s LaMontagne, playing his pawns against me while he won’t even stoop to sit at the chessboard.

“When I get into office, I’m going to move so much nuclear waste to his state that that fucker won’t need lights on the highway.”

“I love it when you talk all tough,” Rachael laughs. She walks into the other room to pour a couple of drinks.

Her laptop is open, and I glance over and see a poll on her screen. I’ve never seen this one before. It isn’t a poll of the primary, or the likely nominees. It isn’t an issues poll, either. It’s a poll I’ve never seen before – a poll about proxies.

“Do you support the use of proxies to reach out to voters?” asked the first question. 63% said yes. Okay, that’s nice. The voters still like the personal touch.

“Recently, the federal government revealed the true price of the program. Do you think it’s worth the expense?” Hey, that was news – I didn’t realize the cost had leaked. Doesn’t anyone know how to keep a state secret anymore? And here, the numbers look bad: 3% thought it was worth the money, 2% were not sure. Everyone else was totally pissed off.

Well, okay, people hate it when you spend their money. But come on, we can spin this. I just catch the next question, which looked like it had something to do with my car crash last December. “Given the controversy over the cost, the ethical issues, and the public safety risks, do you believe the proxy program should-”

And then I hear Rachael padding back into the bedroom. Skilled from years of surfing porn at the office, I flick the window back in time and slide away from the computer.

“What’s up?” she asks.

“Planning my next move on the Body Shots situation.” With a heavy sigh I say, “This is going to get ugly. Rach, I’m going to need to talk to Harry Angler tomorrow. Can you get me on the phone with him?”

The minute the name leaves my lips, I know I’ve screwed up.

See, Rachael’s an idealist. A world saver. She used to spend spring break walking girls past the mobs at abortion clinics. She hears me bring up Angler’s name, and she know exactly what I have in mind.

“You don’t have any other ideas?”

“Nope. None. I can’t do this the right way. But I can still get it done.”

Her eyes get hard – she’s giving me idealist eyes. “You know I joined this campaign because I know you can be a good man. That’s what matters to me. You’re here to do right, and this isn’t right.”

“Rachael, sometimes the ends justify the -”

She cuts that off with a wave of her hand. “Don’t bullshit me.”

So I speak to her as honestly as I know how. “I don’t have a choice here, Rach. I really don’t have a choice. If I slip on the leaderboard, if I don’t deliver this town – I’m finished. Just finished. You think I don’t know have my own questions about how this thing works? Do you think I really believe that the bottom ten guys are getting ambassadorships?

“And,” I added after a thought, “Regardless. I didn’t come this far to give up. That’s not who I am.”

We don’t talk the rest of that night. The last time I see her is when she drops my blanket and pillow on the couch. But I can handle that. Give it time, and she’ll see my point of view.

#

The next week was very convenient for me.

McSmit made the papers: while driving back from a meeting to look at plans for an ice luge, McSmit started driving erratically. He totaled his Mustang on the lawn of a historic house, pulverizing a 17th century birdbath. And what should the cops find in the glove compartment but a tiny bag with a few snorts of cocaine. The legal bill will be staggering. Selling the lot for Body Shots is a given.

By the time of the primary, we had a deal. The Council voted for it; the windmill company gave them a special price for a pilot program. Even Rachael started to warm back up to me. She isn’t happy about McSmit – no mistaking that – but hey, green energy is one of her issues. Technically, this is a win.

I won the primary, too. The state was close, but I had a landslide margin in Fairport. And I made the top of the proxy leaderboard. I should’ve been over the moon.

But somehow I don’t feel finished with this place. In fact, to tell the truth? It feels like the town is finished with me.

On primary night, I stood outside the polling place at the middle school, shaking hands at the gym. On the way in, everyone shook my hand and promised to give me their vote. And on the way out, they kept saying goodbye – like they were never going to see me again.

My campaign party felt like a wake. At the Mayor came, and he gave me a beefy handshake. “Ted, we’re really pleased about this project,” he says. “And hey, I know you’ll be busy in the White House next spring. But is there any way you could come back for the groundbreaking? It’s your baby, and we’d love to take your photo with it.”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” I say, smiling. “But listen. In case I’m busy. Could we take the photo with -” I didn’t know how to put this. “Like, could you take a picture of me for this?”

“Ted, we haven’t even broken ground yet -”

I blurt it out. “If I come back this fall, well – I don’t know if it’ll be me. Me me. You know?”

The Mayor suddenly got my meaning. He stopped, and we had an awkward moment. But it was just a moment. He’s a pol, and he knows how to come right back to the comfort zone. With a cough and a smile, he claps me on the back and says, “Ted? It’ll be you and me and the Secret Service and all your friends in Fairport. And we will welcome you back.”

#

My last day in Fairport, I decide to get my hair cut.

Naturally I go to Joe’s. I wanted to say goodbye, and rib him a little for not voting for me. Rachael said she’d meet me here as soon as the cars packed, and then we’re off to D.C. for our next assignment.

“Ted, I didn’t vote for you, that’s true. You’re on the wrong ticket,” says Joe. “But I’ve gotta say, you lived up to your word. You said you’d build that ridiculous windmill and saddle us all with debt, and you did it.”

“It’ll save money in the long run,” I remind him as he changed clippers.

“Remains to be seen.”

“I’ll come back and find out,” I smile. Damn was I feeling home sick already, and we hadn’t even pulled out of town.

Joe is silent for a while. “So, what’s next for you?” he asks, and he sounds a little funny.

“They haven’t told me. But I have a feeling it’s gonna be great,” I say.

Of course, I’m curious what’s next. Just because the election’s in the bag doesn’t mean we can stop working. Maybe they’ll send me to California – the big prize. I love the weather. And one of me isn’t enough for a state that big. Maybe I’ll get more proxies, working under me – a hundred of them canvassing the state, and I would coordinate them all. In fact, I wonder if I can give each of them a Rachael.

I look out the window to see if Rachael’s brought the car. And then I spot something: a van pulls up outside, and a man in a rumbled trench coat slouches out. It’s Angler.

“What’s in the paper,” I ask, “any good news?”

“Nah. Nothing you should worry about. You just won big, didn’t you?”

Angler walks in, and I get a feeling in my gut – the feeling I get when I’m about to be ambushed by a reporter, or sunk in a debate, or just when I shouldn’t take a call. I get a feeling that I should excuse myself. But there’s nowhere to go.

“Senator,” he says, “come with me.”

“Wait a minute. His haircut’s not done,” Joe objects. He puts a hand on my shoulder. Angler doesn’t even look at him.

“Time to go, Senator.”

I nod to Joe and stand. I offer to pay, but Joe shakes his head. “On the house.”

“Well, thanks Joe. I really appreciate that.”

And for the first time, he extends his hand. We shake. “Best of luck to you, Senator,” he says. And as I leave the shop and get in the van, I feel good. I could swear I almost have his vote.


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We are Ted Tuscadero for President by Chris Dahlen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Based on a work at escapepod.org.

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