Chapter 19

MILITIA WORKER

Rana Harter was happy here on the tundra.

It had taken her a few days in the prefab to grasp and name the feeling. Before meeting the Rixwoman, happiness had only ever come to her in short, evanescent bursts: a few seconds when sunset drenched the sky in the smell of chamomile; a man's touch in the feathery moments before he became brutal; those brief flashes of trumpet and copper-on-the-tongue as Rana's brainbug took hold and the world emerged exact and clear. But the happiness she felt now was somehow sustained, awakening with her each morning, stretching across these long and listless nights she spent with Herd, constantly amazing Rana with its persistence.

Like the whorls of her fingertips in a microscope, joy turned out to be entirely unfamiliar when viewed at this new and larger scale. Rana understood now that the happy moments of her earlier life had been furtive, truncated. Like a wild tundra hare, felicity had always bolted before she could grasp it, slipping across the bleak background of her life, a mere streak forever in peripheral vision. She had been ashamed of her mind's abilities, overawed by the beautiful but brutal natural world of her cold home province, embarrassed by the pleasures she took with men. But now Rana could actually witness her happiness directly, magnified through the lens of eleven-hour Legis nights when Herd was released from duty.

Rana Harter had discovered unimaginable new textures of contentment. She could count the grains in a teaspoon of spilled sugar, listen for hours to the moaning song of the incessant polar wind as it tested the walls of their cheap rented prefab. Even Herd's intense, daily ministrations--shaving every part of her, cutting hair and nails, swabbing saliva, abrading skin--became rough pleasures. The Rixwoman's competent hands, her brittle conversation, and her strange, birdlike movements were endlessly fascinating.

Rana knew that Herd had given her a drug, and that the joy she felt had been forced upon her, leveraged by chemicals rather than events. She knew obectively that she should be terrified: suffering forcible confinement and isolation with a deadly alien. Rana even considered escape once, out of an abstract sense of duty to the militia and her home planet, and from worry that the Rixwoman would eventually dispose of her. Rana had managed to dress herself, the fabric of her old clothes sensually harsh against raw skin. Warmth had required layers and layers; Herd always took their only winter coat to work at the facility. But when Rana opened the door to the prefab, the cold poured in with the blinding glare of the white tundra. The frozen vista of the polar waste muted any desire for freedom. It only reminded Rana how bleak her life had been before. She closed the door and turned the heat up to compensate for the inrush of frigid air, then took off the chafing clothes. She could not leave.

But Rana never felt defeated here in this cabin. Somehow, her mind seemed freed by captivity. It was as if her brainbug, no longer suppressed by shame, had finally been given the opportunity to develop to its true capacity.

Rana loved teaching the northern Legis XV dialect to Herd. While her captor was away impersonating her, Rana spent the hours diagramming the structure of basic Imperial grammar, filling the prefab's cheap airscreen with webs of conjugations surrounded by archipelagos of slang, patois, and irregulars. Her student was an unbelievably quick learner. The commando's knowledge advanced nightly, Herd's flat, neutral accent taking on the rounded vowels of the tundral provinces.

Rana demanded to be taught in return, insisting that knowledge of the Rix tongue would improve her tutoring of Herd. Rana also learned quickly, and they began to converse late into the night, Rana firing away with questions about Herd's upbringing, beliefs, and life in the Rix Cult. At first, the commando resisted these attempts at companionship, but the cold and featureless Legis nights seemed to wear away at her resolve. Soon, the conversation between hostage and captor became constant and bilingual, each speaking the other's language.

At first, Rix was easy to learn. The core grammar of the language was artificial, created by compound minds to facilitate communication between planetary intelligences and their servants. But the language was designed to evolve quickly in human use, its streamlined phonology of clicks and pops infinitely malleable, able to embrace the unwieldy tenses of relativity or the chance-matrices of the quantum.

In Rana's mind, now constantly in a light brainbug fugue, the collectivity of things Rix began to take on a definite shape/flavor/smell. The clean lines of Herd's weapons, the icy sharpness of the woman's language, the whir of her servomotors, just audible when Herd was naked, the way hypercarbon melded into skin at her knees, elbows, and shoulders--all were of a piece. This Rix-shape grew in Rana Harter's head, putting to shame the brainbugs of her earlier life, the mathematical parlor tricks to which the Empire put her ability. Here was the flavor of a whole culture, as deep and heady as some ancient whiskey perpetually under her nose.

Rana watched her captor as if in love, pupils dilated with the dopamine coursing through her bloodstream, brilliant revelations growing within.

After three days at the pole, Herd began to question Rana about Imperial entanglement technology. Under the current state of emergency, the entire polar facility was cut off from the Legis information web; thus the compound mind could only assist indirectly with whatever sabotage they were planning. Herd, a soldier rather than an engineer, was unable to effect the changes that the mind demanded. Rana tried to help with her limited understanding of the arrays used in microastronomy, but her answers often confused Herd; the underlying Rix concepts of quantum theory differed from the Imperial model. The two systems seemed fatally at odds. For one, the Rix standard model rendered the curves of discernible difference with a different number of dimensions than the Imperial. And their notion of discoherence escaped Rana altogether.

So she put her hours of quiet happiness to work, beginning a study of translight communications. She found the Legis library unexpectedly helpful. Almost immediately, Rana found an expert program to help her. The expert bookmarked and highlighted the primary texts, guided her through the morass of beginner's texts to build on her elementary understanding of repeater arrays. The expert seemed to understand Rana, quickly learning to mold information into the form demanded by her brainbug, pulling in the chaotic, widespread data upon which her ability feasted. Herd brought home an attachment for the cabin's airscreen, a second-sight projector that allowed Rana to go into full synesthesia. She sank into the coils of data, willing prey. Herd had never told Rana exactly what the commando's mission was here at the pole, but her study seemed to guide itself.

She found herself fascinated by the backup receivers that supported the facility, collecting the planet's conventional tranmissions and forwarding them to the translight grid. Their were many systems in place in case the hardlines were cut, but Rana was especially drawn to a colony of hardy, small, self-repairing machines that lived on the polar wastes around the facility. They were like the cheap, distributed arrays that Rana had used before in microastronomy, designed to survive arctic winters, earthquakes, and acts of terrorism.

After a few sleepless days, Rana collapsed into a sleep/fugue that lasted some untold time. When she awoke, Herd was next to her, applying a cold rag to her fevered head. The usual joy of awakening filled her, heightened now with the surety of new knowledge. It was in the lemongrass flicker of Herd's eyes, the precision of her movements as she squeezed excess water from the rag, and it animated the shape of Rana's researches in the cabin's airscreen: the flavor of her understanding reflected throughout the room.

"The expert program," Rana said in the Rix tongue. "It's the compound mind, isn't it?"

Herd nodded, and answered quietly.

"It is always with us." The sentence was one syllable in Rix.

The commando held the red wig in one hand. Rana's own hair, removed so long ago, now seemed an alien artifact to her. The Rixwoman fitted the wig onto Rana's head. It felt warm, as if fresh from an oven. It seemed to fit perfectly.

"You will be Rana Harter tomorrow," Herd said.

The thought of leaving the prefab terrified her.

"But I don't even know what you want," Rana said, slipping into Legis dialect. The Imperial language felt crude, like thick porridge in her mouth.

"Yes, you do," the Rixwoman said.

Rana shook her head. She thought hard in her native tongue: she knew nothing. As it had done all her life, confidence crumbled inside Rana.

"I don't understand. I'm not smart enough."

Herd smiled, and touched the cold rag to Rana's forehead. With that contact, her anxiety lifted. Separate threads began to weave themselves together: the data from her guided exploration of repeater technology, the emerging shape and flavor of Rix culture, the fast Bach and lemongrass of Herd's powerful and avian presence.

And quite suddenly, Rana Harter knew the compound mind's desire.

Herd's servomotors whirred as her hands moved across Rana. She was applying some sort of cream to Rana's embattled skin. The touch felt delicious, a balm against the fever of realization in her head.

"Don't worry, my lucky find," the commando said. "Alexander is with you now."

Alexander. The thing actually had a name.

Rana touched her fingers to her own forehead.

"Inside me?"

"Everywhere." EXECUTIVE OFFICER

Katherie Hobbes let the water run into her glass in a thin, slow stream, until it had filled to the brim. The tap stopped automatically, before even a drop ran down the side; water wasn't rationed here on board the Lynx, but wastefulness went against the aesthetics of the Navy.

Hobbes turned from the sink in slow motion, her green eyes following each motion of her hand, carefully watching the wobble of the surface tension that held the water in the glass. She took the few steps that it took to cross the executive officer's private cabin, her movements an exaggerated pantomime. The glass felt strangely heavy, although the Lynx's high acceleration was, in theory, fully corrected. Was the extra weight a stress hallucination? Perhaps Hobbes's limbs were simply tired, beaten down by the constant microshifts of easy gravity.

Or perhaps it was her disappointment. She hadn't had time to recover from Zai's revelation before the weight of high acceleration had settled painfully upon her.

Normally, the vicissitudes of artificial gravity created only a vague disquiet in Hobbes, no worse than the motion sickness she'd experienced on the great, seagoing pleasure craft of her Utopian home. But the Lynx was currently accelerating at ten gees, and the slight flaws and inconsistencies of easy gravity were correspondingly magnified.

The field patterns of easy gravity were a classic metachaotic system, mined with strange attractors, stochastic overloads, and a host of other mathematical chimeras. Fluctuations of mass on one side of a solar system could affect easy gravitons on the other unpredictably, even fatally. It was not quite the case that the flutter of a butterfly's wings could cause a tornado, but the swift rotation of Legis system's seven gas giants and the massive solar flares of its sun constituted more than enough chaos to perturb Katherie Hobbes's inner ear.

Hobbes could feel the effects of high acceleration in her joints as well. Every few minutes, something as simple as taking a step would go subtly wrong, as if the floor had come up slightly too hard to meet her foot. Or an object in her hand would jump from her grasp, as if suddenly pulled by an invisible hand. The stresses were rarely strong, but the constant unpredictability of normal events had gradually worn down her reflexes, fatiguing Hobbes's faith in reality. Now she mistrusted the simplest of actions, just as she mistrusted her own emotions.

What a fool was Katherie Hobbes.

Could she have really thought that Laurent Zai was in love with her, even for a moment? When had that insane idea begun? She felt an idiot; a young idiot, suffering a classic infatuation with a distant, older authority figure. The whole episode had shaken her faith in herself, and the random jumps of gravity that plagued the Lynx weren't helping. She wished she could have a hot bath, and cursed the Navy for its disdain for this simple, necessary pleasure.

At least she had other things to worry about. The flexing gravity around her was real enough, and wielded outliers of lethal force. The night before, the marble chessboard in Hobbes's locker had suddenly, earsplittingly cracked, rudely interrupting her fitful sleep. A few minor injuries had occurred on the Lynx in the first few days of acceleration. Ankle fractures and knee sprains were common, a young marine's arm had broken without apparent cause, and burst blood vessels were visible in the eyes of a number of her shipmates. Katherie herself had suffered an unbearable and sudden headache the day before. It had passed quickly, but the intense pain was unnerving. With the ship's doctor dead, there was little hope for anyone suffering brain damage from some wayward tendril of gravity passing through their head.

Hobbes walked carefully, and reached the black lacquer table without spilling any of the water.

Setting the glass on the table, she sat and watched the water's surface. It loomed just above the lip, quivering slightly. Was that some perturbation of the easy gravity field? Or simply the ambient vibration of the Lynx under high acceleration, marking the egress of photons from its churning engines?

The water shuddered once, but the surface tension held. A few drops condensed on the side of the glass and traveled slowly downward. Nothing seemed to be out of order in that tiny segment of space.

It gave Katherie a secure feeling to observe this localized example of soundness and normality.

After a minute of watching, Hobbes picked up the glass and poured it slowly onto the table.

The water seemed to turn black against the ebony lacquer. It formed into rivulets and small pools, seeking the imperceptible valleys of the table's contours. None was absorbed into the shiny blackness; the water's surface tension kept the drops large and rounded.

On a dry island in this shallow sea she placed the diamond Laurent Zai had given her, a bright spot against its blackness.

Hobbes set the half-full glass down and regarded the results.

At first, the liquid seemed to come to rest, gathered in spattery puddles, with one tiny river reaching the edge and running from table onto floor. Then, Hobbes saw something move across the blackness, a wave of force, as if the table had been kicked. A few seconds later, one of the tendrils of water flexed in agitation, twisting like a beached fish. A single, isolated droplet moved a few centimeters, as if momentarily inhabited by a live spirit, and engulfed the tiny diamond. Then the water was still again.

Hobbes waited patiently, and more flutters of motion came. Spread across the table's two dimensions, its passage on the lacquer almost friction-less, the spilled water writhed visibly with the microshifts of artificial gravity coursing through the Lynx. In its sinuous motion, it revealed gravitic lines of force like iron filings rendering the patterns of magnetism.

It eased Katherie's mind to watch the water move. Now that she could actually see the invisible forces that had tortured her crewmates for the last week, Hobbes felt a bit more in control. She gazed at the black table, trying to scry some understanding from the patternless figures there. But easy gravitons were chaotic, complex, unpredictable: like the ancients' concept of the gods, whimsical and obscure, pushing tiny humans around according to some incomprehensible plan. Not unlike, Katherie Hobbes reflected, the political forces that moved the Lynx across the black and empty canvas of space, placing them here at this nexus of a new war, condemning the captain, pardoning him, then sending them all careening toward death.

Like the drops of water before her, the crew of the Lynx wriggled blindly against this void. An emotion that had seemed immense to Hobbes had become suddenly infinitesimal, laughable. On the scale of the universe, the aborted love of one executive officer for her captain made no ripples at all.

Still, at this moment, Hobbes knew she hated Laurent Zai with all her heart.

When her door sounded, Katherie Hobbes started, banging her knee against the table's leg.

"Come," she said, rubbing the leg, her latest wound.

Second Gunner Thompson entered, taking slow, careful steps, like a practiced alcoholic. He smiled when he saw the water-covered table.

"Spill something? I've been doing that all week."

"Just an experiment," she said.

He shrugged, and pointed to the chair opposite her. She nodded. Thompson lowered himself carefully, mindful of the poltergeists of gravity all around them.

It occurred to Hobbes that the second gunner had never been in her private cabin before. He had always been friendly, but perhaps a bit too familiar, as if he felt that his aristocratic roots entitled him beyond his rank. And Hobbes was aware of the effect she had on some crew. Her Utopian upbringing had casually included a degree of cosmetic surgery that gray parents would never countenance. She was overwhelmingly beautiful to many of them, and to others a woman of cartoonish sexuality, like a whore in some ribald comedy. She had considered counteractive surgery to make herself more average-looking, but that seemed the ultimate affectation. Hobbes was what she was.

The man sighed when he reached the safety of the chair.

"I'm sore all over," he said.

"Who isn't?" Hobbes answered. "Just be glad you can't feel the real ten gees. Then you'd be sore. Dead by now, in fact."

Thompson's head rolled back slowly in exhaustion; his eyes closed.

"The worst thing is," he said, "1 can't quite place where it hurts. It's like when you turn an ankle, and wind up limping for a few days. Then the other ankle gets sore from taking up the slack."

"Collateral injuries," she said.

"Right. But I seem to be all collateral injuries, like I can't remember where the original damage was. Very disquieting."

Hobbes looked down at the table. Her collision with it had spattered the water evenly across the black expanse, and now it revealed nothing but the ship's ambient vibration.

"I know what you mean," she said. "I've been trying to get a hold of it myself. To place it... in perspective."

Thompson opened his eyes, squinted at her. Then he shrugged.

"Ever been in high acceleration this long before, Hobbes?"

She shook her head. Few of the crew had. High gees were usually reserved for battle, a few hours at most.

"Makes you wonder what we did to deserve it," Thompson said.

Something about the man's voice made her look up from the spattered table. His eyes were narrowed.

"We lost the Empress," she answered flatly.

He nodded deliberately, as if wary of gravity even in this simple motion.

"A debt that wasn't paid," he said softly.

A slow disquiet took form in Hobbes's stomach, joining the nausea that lay there. "What are you talking about, Thompson?"

"Katherie, do you really think the Navy wants to sacrifice the Lynx?" he asked. His voice was as soft now, just above a whisper. "Simply to prevent one compound mind from communicating with one Rix ship?"

"So it would seem, Thompson," she said.

"But we can't keep the mind cut off forever," he said. "It's a whole planet, for the Emperor's sake. The Rix'll find some way to talk to it."

"Maybe. But not while the Lynx is here."

"However long that is," he said.

She looked down at the table, unable to think for a moment. The water looked different now. The surface tension seemed to be reasserting itself; droplets and puddles were forming again. It didn't make sense, this spontaneous organization. Was entropy giving way to order, the arrow of time in reverse?

What was Thompson talking about?

"Tell me what's on your mind, Second Gunner," Hobbes ordered.

"It's obvious, Katherie," he said, "why the Lynx is being sent on this mission. We're being sacrificed, to cover the debt not paid."

Hobbes closed her eyes. She only had a few seconds to respond, she knew.

Katherie Hobbes had been an above-average student at Academy, but not the best. Coming from a Utopian world, she didn't have the discipline of her gray peers. She didn't think herself truly brilliant, just savant at certain types of tactical calculations. But even in her greatest moments of self-doubt, Hobbes always prided herself on one thing: she made decisions quickly.

Katherie Hobbes made a decision now.

"Thompson, are you the only one thinking about this?"

He shook his head, so slightly that it would have been imperceptible in a low-resolution recording.

"Tell me what you're thinking, Thompson."

"We've been friends, right, Hobbes?"

She nodded.

"So you give your word that you'll be ... discreet?"

Hobbes sighed. She'd hoped it wouldn't come to this. But her decision was made.

"The way I see it, Thompson," she said, "we're all dead anyway."

He smiled ruefully, folding his hands and shifting in his seat toward her.

"Maximum privacy," she told the room, and leaned forward to listen.

MILITIA WORKER

As Rana Harter approached the sniffer, she felt like an impostor.

The red wig tight on her head, the coarse militia fatigues against her raw skin, the military ID bracelet--it all felt like a costume, a ruse that might be discovered at any second. In the burnished metal walls of the facility her own reflection was only distantly familiar, a holo from childhood. It was as if she were impersonating a previous self.

The sniffer created a bottleneck as the workers entered the array facility. Rana felt a moment of panic as she joined the crowd. The week she'd spent alone with Herd in the prefab seemed like months now--the lengthened memory of some summer idyll. Isolation had a purity about it, a calm order that was hard to leave behind. The jostling crowd offended her new sensibilities.

She wished that Herd were here with her, a familiar presence to guide her through the strange facility. The commando had impersonated Rana for the last week, and knew her way within these walls. But the sniffer would no doubt take umbrage at two Rana Harters entering together.

There was a slight updraft in the short passageway of the sniffer, slow fans assisting the human thermal plume, carrying skin cells and dust upward. With these particles the device could not only DNA-type the entering workers, but also detect the effluvia of concealed explosives or weapons, and search frayed hairs and skin cells for signs of drug or alcohol abuse. It could even sniff theft; valuable pieces of equipment in the facility were given phero patches. Whatever you were up to, the sniffer smelled you out.

Rana held her breath as she passed through. Would the device notice the difference between herself and Herd? The thought of being stopped and questioned terrified her. She might be Rana Harter down to the bone, but she felt utterly false.

She hoped her epidermis had recovered sufficiently to satisfy the machine's appetite. Herd had worked a healing balm into her skin all night, trying to restore the cells the commando had mined so pitilessly for her own use. The balm seemed to have worked, taking the pink rawness from her skin--but after the last week, any attempt to put the old Rana Harter back together seemed woefully insufficient. She felt half Rix now.

The sniffer, however, let her through without comment.

Herd had drawn a map on a piece of flash paper. Rana held the paper carefully: any friction and it would incinerate itself. She followed the map through narrow, dimly lit hallways. The tight hypercarbon spaces down here felt like the corridors of an overcrowded ship, and smelled of damp and humanity. The facility was overstaffed by half, Rana knew. Herd had said that a fresh load of newcomers had arrived two days ago, along with news of another approaching Rix warship. The signs of organizational confusion were everywhere: equipment stacked in carry-cases crowding the halls, breakrooms filled with impromptu workstations, newly assigned workers moving through the hallways carrying order chits and looking lost.

The repeater array that collected the planet's com traffic for offworld retransmission was being refitted to assist Legis's orbital defenses. The changeover from communications to intelligence gathering was taking place at breakneck speed.

When Rana mot other workers in the hall, she found herself moving like Herd. Another imitation, in case any of the passersby had met the commando in her Rana Harter guise. The avian motions--sudden and tightly controlled, each joint an isolated engine--came to Rana with an unexpected ease. In a week of living with the commando, she had internalized the woman's gait, copying her avian power and unpredictability. The impersonation seemed to work, even though there was a decimeter difference in stature between herself and her captor. A few of the other workers nodded with recognition or said her name in greeting.

Rana responded to them with Herd's cryptic smile.

It would, of course, be easy to escape the Rixwoman now. She could announce herself to the facility's security forces--pulling off the wig would certainly get their attention. And she was safe from retaliation. Alexander was absent here. The links from the planetary infostructure to the entanglement facility had been physically cut by Imperial edict. The usual ghosts of second sight--timestamps, newsfeeds, and locators--were oddly absent. There was nothing Herd or Alexander could do to her. But if she betrayed them, the happiness would go away.

Herd had already injected her with the antidote for the dopamine regulators. The nanos' influence had diminished already, the joy she had floated upon for the last week slowly winding down. Herd had insisted, and it was true, that with the gauze of happiness gone she would be more clearheaded for this job. But her undrugged mind threatened to return to its former state of indecision and fear. She could already glimpse that wavering, all-too-human Rana Harter waiting in the wings. The confident, hybrid creature she had become could crumble at any moment.

She knew she would not betray her new allies. Rana wanted to keep this reborn self. The Rixwoman and her omnipotent god had erased a lifetime of marginal existence, borderline depression, and unfulfilled potential. They had done more for Rana Harter in a week than the Empire had in twenty-seven years.

And besides, this was a mission of mercy, she now understood. Alexander must be freed.

Following the map, she found the workstation for Rana Harter, Second-Class Militia Worker. The interface was unfamiliar from her days in quantum microastronomy. As Herd had explained, she had been assigned to monitor and repair the hundreds of receivers/repeaters that funneled the world's data into the entanglement facility. Her transfer here--arranged by Alexander--had been justified by Rana's practical knowledge of distributed arrays. She'd been assigned to the GAP's remote, icy wastes all her career, and had often been required to make her own repairs.

But she would be doing more than repairs today.

Hopefully, no one would interrupt her shift. The chaos of the overcrowded station was such that a self-sufficient operator was largely left to her own devices. Rana sat, called up the workstation's help mode, and began to look things over.

By the end of her shift, Rana Harter had found everything that Alexander wanted.

The entanglement facility had been designed for exactly the type of traffic the compound mind envisioned. The facility incorporated a huge number of repeaters that gathered information from local planetary communications--phones, credit cells, taxation minders, legal governors--and pumped compressed versions of these data into the entanglement system. Despite its military provenance, the facility's primary purpose was to link the planet's civilian economy with the rest of the Risen Empire. There were even FM radio transmitters to throughput data to the other Legis planets at lightspeed; XV was the fleshpot and de facto capital of the system.

In peacetime, these transmissions came into the entanglement facility through hardlines, and in emergencies, through the repeaters. Scattered through the acres of the facility were tens of thousands of tiny civilian-band receivers, a vast colony of machines that lived on snow and sunlight. The repeater colony extended for hundreds of square kilometers, to the edge of the wire: a lethal barrier surrounding the facility. These receivers were like weeds among rare flowers, banal technology compared with the translight communications they supported, but self-repairing and hardy enough to withstand arctic winters.

Rana examined the system with growing frustration, the metallic taste of failure in her mouth. She couldn't help Alexander. Nothing could be done from her repair station to reconnect the entanglement facility to the rest of the planet. The repeater software was too distributed, too autonomous to respond to a central command. And the repeaters themselves were switched off--not ordered into sleep mode, but physically turned off by hand. The imperials were taking Legis's isolation very seriously.

Someone would have to go into the array field itself to make the necessary changes. Past the minefields, sniffers, and microfilament barriers of the wire. It had taken hundreds of militia workers to physically turn the repeaters off.

She sighed. There was nothing she could do herself. This was a problem for Alexander and Herd. If Rana could smuggle them the data she had collected, she wouldn't have to return to this awful place.

She searched her workstation for some way to bring the data to Herd, and settled on a memory strip borrowed from a repairbot's internal camera. A schematic of the simple repeaters fit easily into the memory strip's capacity, and she added a map of the array and the barrier wire's specs. Rana shut her station down and erased her researches; her shift was almost over.

Now she could return to the warmth and safety of the prefab, to happiness.

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