Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

"THE CHOSEN FEW" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR


It was my cabin--and yet it was not.

Let's see, I thought as I entered. It's been about five months since I left Zelazny. What are the odds that this place has sat vacant all this time? The answer was easy: very damn small. No: this had to be Dr. Zee's work. Someone--who, I never learned--had been hurriedly moved out, lock, stock and barrel, so I could move back in. I appreciated the sentiment--but they needn't have bothered. One empty cabin is much like another.

In my pride--or foolishness--I'd declined the use of a skim-chair, or indeed any assistance at all, opting instead for my own two feet. On Raven, the three decks which separated my quarters from sickbay would have been an insurmountable obstacle: but Zelazny had drop-shafts instead of stairs. Even so, it was a long and painful journey, and before it was over the corridors were rocking back and forth in 3/4 time. The goggles reduced the light in the halls to a tolerable level--and earned me some very strange looks from passing crewmembers. A new uniform had been tailored for me (I don't take anything off the rack) with a patch of Scispec green on the breast. At one time the trim grey jumpsuit would have fit perfectly, but now it hung loose; even the accompanying collar was sloppy. Some day-robes had been promised too, and that was good: they'd be more comfortable during my convalescence.

A human writer (or was it a Quadrian?) once observed that you "can't go home again"--and how right he was. Those quarters had been my home for a long time; now they were simply a…place. Two rooms: in the one a neatly-made bunk and a large chair, some built-in drawers and a wardrobe cabinet. In the other a table, another chair, and a computer terminal. And that was all: gone were my tapestries, my paintings, my sculptures. Gone was everything which had made this place mine, which had held back the cold impersonality.

I crossed to the bunk and collapsed upon it. My legs were weak, my side throbbing beneath its tight elastic wrap. My condition disturbed me greatly; would I ever feel like myself again? As I rested, I suddenly remembered something which might hasten the recovery process. Leaning across to the bedside terminal, I touched keys. In large-font mode the little screen was readable--barely. "FILE SEARCH," I tapped.

"SPECIFY."

"EHM'AYLA ENVIRONMENTAL ONE." A long shot, but maybe…

"WORKING," the screen flashed. And then, less than a second later, "FILE FOUND."

Amazing. Zelazny's computer was Aparna's domain, and she was usually a demon for efficiency. I would have expected her to purge the file months ago. Still, with terabits of storage available… "CHECK INTEGRITY."

"WORKING…" A pause. "FILE INTACT."

Wonders never cease. "RUN."

Immediately the light dimmed and warmed toward magenta. Wooden chimes began clicking faintly at the edge of my hearing; and a sweet flowery scent tickled my nose. Goddess, how I've missed this! I thought. Among other things…

Gratefully I peeled away the goggles--then winced and squeezed my eyes shut. Squinting, I fumbled for the keyboard. "CANCEL SPOTLIGHT OVER DESK. REDUCE AMBIENT LIGHT ONE-THIRD."

When I dared to peek this had been done, and the light was tolerable. Despite the doctor's assurances, that was beginning to disturb me too, even more than my lingering weakness. "SAVE NEW CONFIGURATION AS EHM'AYLA ENVIRONMENTAL TWO."

I was about to stretch out on the bed, to ease my shoulder and ribs, when the doorbell buzzed. I considered ignoring it…for perhaps a tenth of a second. Solitude I'd had quite enough of--and it contained too many ghosts for my liking. "Come in!" I said, and I remembered just in time to avert my eyes.

The voice was soft, gentle…and familiar. "Ehm'ayla? Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," I said. "The light hurts my eyes. Please come in, Commander."

I heard the door close, and then I raised my head. Aparna Singh stood peering at me; her face wore a welcoming smile; but her dark eyes overflowed with pity and concern. "It's not like that between us," she said quietly. "Never."

"Pardon me?"

"That 'commander' business," she said. "That's nothing more than a circumstance of bureaucracy--you know that."

"Yes I do," I said, forcing a smile. "Aparna. Please, sit down."

She pulled the big chair close and settled into it, her knees almost touching mine. I clasped her hands. "I'm glad you stopped by," I said. "I want to thank you. I would have been that thing's lunch if you and Max hadn't shown up."

"You're welcome," she said. "It was a very close thing: another few seconds and we would have been on our way back to the ship. We had no idea anyone was down there; the captain sent us to check out some unusual energy readings."

I nodded. "I know; he told me." I paused. "So--how did you recognize me?"

She smiled. "Your belt," she said. "When we made our second pass we saw the struggle, and I caught a glint of sunlight off your belt and water bottles. Max didn't see it--he was too busy piloting. I had quite a job convincing him to fire the particle cannon. Survey personnel aren't supposed to harm the local fauna, you know."

I grinned. "I know." There's an exemption for "extraordinary circumstances"--fortunately, because I'd "harmed" more of Hellhole's wildlife than I cared to recall.

"I wouldn't have recognized you otherwise," Aparna went on. "I don't think I've ever seen you--uh--unclothed before."

"I doubt my own mother would have recognized me," I assured her.

She smiled, and in the brief silence that followed, she glanced around. "Did you lose everything?"

"Pardon?"

"When Raven was destroyed," she explained. "Did you lose all your art and mementos?"

"Oh…no, I didn't," I said. "I wasn't able to take much with me aboard Raven. I only lost clothes, a few holos, and some odds and ends. Everything else is in storage on Outpost Four. I suppose I can retrieve it when we return there." The holos could be copied, and the Admiralty would replace my medals, eventually. The objects I'd lost were entirely replaceable. Too bad they weren't all…

"That's something, at least," Aparna said.

"Yes," I agreed. "That's something."

She gazed at me searchingly for a moment. Then she said, "I don't know much Sah'aaran psychology--only what I've learned from you. But we humans have a term: 'survival's guilt.'"

I glanced aside. Of course I took her meaning, and I might have simply nodded and left it at that--but not with her. Aparna Singh was my best friend in that corner of the galaxy; we had worked together for a long time, and shared many experiences, hopes, dreams and disappointments. If she wouldn't understand, who would? "You're half right," I said finally. "I do feel guilty--but not because I survived."

"Why, then?"

"Because," I began, and choked off. Swallowing hard, I forced myself to go on. "Because I don't feel sorry for most of them. I've tried--but I can't."

Her jaw dropped. "You can't mean that."

"I wish I didn't. The fact is, Aparna…three months on that ship was like an eternity in the Dark Domains."

Her eyes widened, then narrowed. "I…don't understand."

I took a deep shuddering breath. "To begin with, I was the only non-Terran aboard…"

She frowned. "How could that be? Combined Forces regulations…"

"Were circumvented," I finished bitterly. "And that's the way they wanted to keep it. I wouldn't even have been allowed on board if Admiral Conroy and Commodore Ehm'rael hadn't forced the issue."

"Go on."

My fingertips began to tingle, and I fought the impulse to hide my hands behind my back. I should tell her, I thought. I should share it with someone, before it destroys me. But I couldn't: my shame ran too deep. "It started with hazing," I said. "But it didn't stop there. It soon became…vicious. Racial epithets. Vandalism of my office. I was banned from the mess hall and the Rec Room. My work--my very existence--was all but ignored. I had no authority; on that ship I was 'junior,' even to those with years less service."

"What about Commander Abrams? Wasn't he your friend…?"

Joel. Two months later, it was still like a punch in the stomach. Why didn't you come to me sooner? Why did you abandon me, until it was too late? "He…wasn't involved," I said simply. "And yes, he was my friend--once. On Raven our friendship fell apart."

"Why?"

"He was afraid to help me. Captain Antilles was powerful; it wasn't safe to cross him. And…something was going on aboard that ship, Aparna. Antilles had an…agenda. He was 'searching' for something--but I never found out what. The other officers knew…but I didn't. I wasn't supposed to. Joel tried his best to keep me from finding out. He thought he was protecting me--but in the end it only made things worse."

Aparna shook her head. "I'm not questioning your word," she said. "But you'll have to admit--it's a little hard to believe. I mean, on a Combined Forces vessel?"

I couldn't believe it either, and I'd lived it every day for three months. Surviving Hellhole was a kit's play-hunt in comparison. And even knowing that there was indeed a conspiracy aboard hadn't helped me discover why Raven's crew hated me so intensely. There were exceptions, of course; but Antilles, Edgeworth, Harris, Osgood…their disdain was palpable from the moment I stepped aboard. And unlike Gaetano and the other Scispecs, with them I never made a millimeter of headway. Never for a second did they alter their opinion of me, right to the end.

Aparna was gazing at me, her eyes radiating concern--and suddenly I knew that I had to tell her…everything. "The hazing and the racism weren't the worst of it," I said, my voice barely audible. Looking down, not daring to meet her gaze, I went on, "If you were Sah'aaran I couldn't tell you this at all. What they did to me was the worst thing one of us could suffer. It's literally unthinkable."

Aparna shook her head. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't understand."

I nodded. "I know you don't. No human can." I took a deep breath. "They…they cut off my claws."

She looked down at my hands. "But…"

"They grew back." As she'd already seen. "Thank the Goddess, they did. But for almost a month--until my stranding--I was clawless. Even longer: it was another five weeks before they grew back. A Sah'aaran…would rather be dead."

"You didn't--?" she began fearfully.

"I considered it," I admitted with a tired nod. "After the first time."

"But--?"

I shrugged. "But…I couldn't. I had to keep fighting. I couldn't let the bastard win."

She grasped my hands. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "Truly sorry."

With an effort I pulled myself together. I'd been on the verge of breaking down, and not even to my best friend would I show tears. But I'd been right to tell her: to do so was a catharsis, a purging. She was literally the only person I could have forced myself to tell--and in fact I could not have picked a better confidant. Her honest sympathy was the perfect balm for my wounded soul. I forced a smile. "…But that's past history," I said. "All I can do now is concentrate on the future. My future."

She peered at me doubtfully--then she rose, lifting me to my feet. "Come on," she said.

"Where are we going?"

"Officer's Mess," she replied briskly. "You need feeding--and company. Friendly company."

I lacked the strength to argue--nor did I care to. I grabbed my goggles and let her lead me away.

###

I woke the next morning feeling stronger--in more ways than one.

It was 0600--or at least I think that's what the bedside chrono was telling me: large as they were, to my eyes the numerals were little more than a glowing green blur. I'd set no alarm, but my internal clock had apparently begun to function again, set to CF time. My old habits were already reasserting themselves--and whether that was a good thing, I couldn't decide. Having no reason to rise, I rolled over onto my stomach, resting my chin on my hands. Memories of the previous afternoon were drifting back, and I smiled fondly as I considered them. As usual, Aparna was correct: I had been in need of companionship, even more than food.

What happened in the Officer's Mess was entirely spontaneous, nothing at all like that horrific farewell party five months before. When Aparna and I arrived the hall was almost empty--but that was soon to change. She insisted on carrying my heavily-laden tray, and I let her. By mutual, unspoken consent, our conversation turned away from Raven, and she did most of the talking: I was eager for news of Zelazny's doings.

After a time, others began to drift in: Max; Lieutenant Morley, my one-time trainee; Lieutenant Commander Ancheta, Zelazny's Anthro-Paleo (I could "talk shop" with him now); even Dr. Zeeleeayykk. They arrived with no intentions apart from eating--but seeing me, they lingered, and very soon I found myself in the midst of a large and friendly crowd.

Goddess, what a difference! I remember thinking, somewhere along the line. I can't even begin to count the crewmembers who went out of their way to greet me and inquire about my health. Here there was no silence, no stares, no remarks, no mocking sniggers. The laughter that surrounded me now was genuine--and inclusive. At some point the knot of stress that had lain hard and immobile in my stomach for many months finally began to dissolve.

Utterly exhausted by the time I returned to my quarters, I retired immediately to my bunk, even though the hour was still quite early. And now, after a long and satisfying sleep, I found that the pain in my shoulder was gone, and even my ribs were no more than mildly sore. My eyes were almost comfortable, but still sensitive, and I left the lights turned low as I rose, washed and dressed. I could almost bring myself to believe that I would heal, given time; that there was indeed a life after Raven and Hellhole.

Sometime during the night a package had arrived, via the pneumatic tubes: a bundle containing a spare uniform, undergarments, two rather plain day-robes, and a few hygiene items, including a much-needed hairbrush. Purring softly, I put everything away, a job which took considerably less time than arranging my cabin aboard Raven had. After a moment's indecision, I chose to don one of the day-robes: I was off-duty, after all, and might as well be comfortable. The only collar I had was the plain grey one from my uniform; it didn't match the robe's wide brown stripes, but it would have to do. What had happened to my hand-woven one I didn't know; a one-way trip down the disposal chute, probably.

I'd grown hungry again--make that "ravenous"--but I immediately decided against the Officer's Mess. The previous afternoon had been wonderful, but Dr. Zee was right: I'd been out of circulation a long time, and my nerves were still fragile. A quiet, solitary breakfast, right there in my cabin; that was the ticket. I had some work to do anyway. I took my scrambled eggs, liver and tea over to the work table, and settled in comfortably before the terminal.

Something else I'd sorely missed was a decent computer--and one on which the information I needed wasn't locked away beyond my reach. Zelazny's logs for the last several days were gratifyingly easy to access, as was the current sensor-stream. The ship, I discovered, was still circling Hellhole's farther moon, in a geosynchronous orbit which kept the planet constantly in view, every sensor trained on that hot, useless--and strangely fascinating--world.

During our discussion, Aparna had confirmed what Captain Haliday told me: Zelazny's landing parties had entirely failed to find my shelter. That still struck me as unlikely, even bizarre; but in such a miserable climate, even the most careful observers can become lax. Perhaps they'd gone no farther than the clearing; or perhaps….There were any number of possibilities--but whatever had happened, it left me with a problem. Or perhaps more than one.

Haliday had sent just two teams, apart from Max and Aparna. Neither had stayed down more than three hours--Haliday was not Antilles--and neither had learned anything of consequence. Since moving the ship, the captain had allowed no further landings. A wise precaution, I suppose--but frustrating nonetheless.

The phenomena which preceded my rescue had so far not reappeared. Copious data on those two strange events was available to me, recorded both by Zelazny and by the pod, and as I ate I scrolled slowly through it. Very soon I found myself shaking my head in confusion. Raven had recorded many magnetic anomalies--but nothing even remotely like the disturbance which led Goodwin and Singh to me. It was exactly as Haliday had described it: a bull's-eye, dozens of kilometers across, centered directly on the clearing where I was attacked. Coincidence? Sure.

And the other occurrence…well, magnetic anomalies were common enough on Hellhole, but that could be explained by no theory I knew. Once again the captain's description was concise: what had been detected--first by the pod and then by Zelazny--was an energy surge identical to that which accompanies a ship's passage through a hypertunnel. But that is a deep-space phenomenon, which does not--can not--occur on a planet's surface. It was almost as if…

I paused, tail frozen in mid-wave and teacup halfway to lip, as the implications of that thought sunk in. Finally, firmly, I shook my head. No, I thought. Impossible. Ridiculous. There had to be another explanation. But it happened just before I was attacked…

A few more minutes of searching through the logs--and I found what I hadn't known I was looking for. Leaning back with a second cup of tea in my hand, just skimming now because my eyes were aching, I almost missed it…but suddenly, realizing what I'd just read, I sat bolt upright, nearly spilling English Breakfast all over myself. Goddess! Why didn't I think of that before--? Setting the cup aside, I reached for the intercom. "Ehm'ayla to Vandevere."

The response was immediate--and friendly, something which still took me by surprise. "Vandevere here. How are you, Lieutenant?"

"I'm fine, thank you, sir," I said. "I hope I'm not disturbing you…"

"Not at all. What can I do for you?"

"Commander, can you tell me: how long was Zelazny in orbit around Hel--uh--the planet, before I was found?"

"As I recall, a little less than six hours." Exactly what the logs indicated. "Why do you ask?"

"Well, sir, it's strange. I'd made it a habit to take an orbital scan and send a distress signal twice a day--and I'd done so less than three hours before. My scanpak and commpak were low on power, but still functional…"

"I take your point," Vandevere said. "And yes--that's odd, to say the least. Obviously you should have detected us, and we should have received your call. Only you know about the former, of course, but as for the latter, I can assure you: we didn't. Not a peep."

"That magnetic anomaly, perhaps?"

"Maybe," he said thoughtfully. "I'll have Aparna look into it. Thank you."

"You're welcome." I hesitated. "Sir?"

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"Commander, is it possible the captain might authorize one additional landing?" I swallowed. "With me as a member of the party?'

He paused for a long moment, then said, "I'd have thought you'd had enough of that place to last a lifetime."

"I have," I agreed. "But I need to find my equipment, sir. And I need to know why the previous parties couldn't locate my shelter."

"Why is that so important?"

Because I have a feeling I won't be able to find it either. But if I told him that, he'd think I'd lost my mind--and maybe he'd be right. "Evidence for the court-martial, sir," I said lamely. "My scanpak still contains the readings I took that last day. Without it, all I can offer them is my unsupported word."

"I understand," he said. "And I'll see what I can do. But I have to warn you: I doubt the captain will authorize it. Not in your condition--and not for a missing scanpak."

I sighed. "Understood, sir."

"…And don't worry about that court-martial, Ehm'ayla. Your word, supported or not, ought to be good enough for anyone."

###

Several hours later, day-robe, goggles and all, I journeyed to the Officer's Mess for lunch.

Picking up my tray, I caught sight of Max Goodwin at a table in the rear, and he smiled and gestured for me to join him. Making my way across the hall, careful both of my own ribs and the ones on my plate, I had to clear my throat hurriedly as a sudden and embarrassing surge of emotion caused it to tighten. I still couldn't get used to people treating me nicely…

"The very Sah'aaran I wanted to see," he said as I settled in across from him. He peered at me closely, but like everyone's, his eyes shied away from my left ear. "How are you, Ehm'ayla?"

"Much better," I said. "Bored out of my skull, but better."

"Your eyes--?"

I sighed and shrugged. "Who knows? They're still sensitive--but Dr. Zee swears the treatments are working."

"I'm sure she's right," he said. He patted his pockets. "I've got something for you." Finally he brought forth a flat plastic box and passed to me. I glanced at him quizzically, and he grinned. "Open it," he urged.

I did, and found inside a neatly-coiled Sah'aaran-style collar, woven from shiny black thread with a multicolored geometric pattern running through it. "This is lovely!" I said, running the band between my fingers. "Thank you, Max!"

He grinned in embarrassment, his cheeks suddenly matching his hair. "You're welcome," he said. "But I can't take all the credit; it was really Aparna's idea."

Quickly--though only another Sah'aaran would have regarded it as indecent exposure--I removed my plain grey collar and replaced it with the new one. Somehow my friends had even managed to get the size right: comfortably short of snug. With it in place I immediately felt less conspicuous: a slave to fashion, that's me. I reached across to grasp Max's hand, even as my throat began to close up again. "I really appreciate it, Max."

"My pleasure," he said. He took a swig of tea. "So--what have you been doing with yourself?"

I made a sour face. "The captain ordered me to rest, and I've been trying to," I said. "But you know how I am about inactivity…"

He grinned. "I do indeed."

"…So I've also been studying the sensor data and the logs from the time of my rescue. Trying to make some sense of it."

"And?"

"And…it's frustrating, That's why I'm here: I needed a break. Nothing makes sense, Max. There's no explanation for those two events. And I have no idea why I didn't detect Zelazny in orbit, or why my distress call wasn't received. I've even found myself wondering what really happened to Raven…"

"As far as your rescue goes, I can't help much," Goodwin said. "Aparna and I have studied those logs too, and they don't make sense to us either." He paused. "But as for Raven…that's obvious. Must have been a containment failure."

"That's what everyone keeps telling me," I agreed. "But I'm not sure I believe it."

…And why not? I asked myself for the thousandth time. Why did my gut keep rejecting the most reasonable explanation? Was it perhaps that I didn't want to believe? Despite our difficulties, deep down I still wanted to trust Joel Abrams--or at very least his engineering skills. I didn't want his legacy to be one of failure.

"Penny for 'em," Max said.

I glanced up. An obscure reference--but no match for my grasp of Terran idiom. "I was just thinking…maybe I should have a talk with Hullumm."

###

I'd had enough rest.

It was the fifth day since my rescue, and Zelazny still orbited Hellhole's farther moon, while Captain Haliday waited for orders. The Scispecs continued their investigations, in which I had no official part; and with nothing else to do, I shuttled back and forth between my quarters, the Officer's Mess, sickbay and the Rec Room, comfortable nowhere, my impatience rapidly reaching the boiling point. Not since my trip from Sah'aar to the Officer's Academy had I been a mere passenger; it was a role I no longer knew how to play.

The captain refused to allow another landing--even a brief one to search for my lost equipment. Despite my irritation, I couldn't blame him: he was doing the prudent thing, as commander of the most valuable ship and crew in the Survey. Had I told him of the wild theory that had flashed into my mind as I studied the logs, he might have changed his mind--or he might have locked me up as a dangerous lunatic. With a court-martial looming, the last thing I needed to do was damage my credibility--or so I told myself. At any rate, I chose to remain silent.

I did manage a talk with Commander Hullumm, tracking him down in his office in Zelazny's gleaming engine hull. He was friendly--to me, he always was--but not particularly helpful. He agreed that Joel had been an excellent Techspec, one whose reputation had spread far and wide. But: "Plasma containment failures do happen--and I'm afraid that's the most likely explanation. I've reviewed Raven's records; she wasn't so much refit as patched back together. Abrams was a fine engineer--but even he couldn't predict the failure of an aging pinch-bottle generator which ought to have been replaced."

He was right, of course, his explanation eminently logical…but not what I'd wanted to hear.

I woke that fifth morning with a fierce resolve, and the knowledge that I'd lain fallow long enough. I rose, breakfasted quickly, groomed myself, put on my uniform, settled my dark goggles over my eyes, and made my way determinedly to the Control Deck.

They were all on duty: Haliday, Vandevere, Max, Aparna. Even Hullumm, more or less, via the holoscreen above the Tech station. As I entered--for the first time in more than five months--they rounded on me with strange, almost startled expressions.

"Lieutenant Ehm'ayla," the captain said hesitantly. "Can we help you?"

I brought myself to full attention before him. "Captain, I request permission to return to duty. Any duty."

Haliday paused for a long moment, looking pained. The others exchanged a glance, their expressions ones of--what? Sadness? Concern? Pity? I couldn't tell, but my tail began to lash nonetheless. Finally the captain said, "I'm sorry, Lieutenant. If it was up to me, I'd consider it. But it's just been taken out of my hands."

"Pardon me, sir?"

He glanced at Singh, and she lifted a palm-reader from her console. "We received this hyperzap just a few minutes ago," she said softly, reluctantly, unable to meet my gaze. She read: "From Admiral Stephen Conroy, CO TCA Outpost Four, to Captain Isaac Haliday, commanding ESV Zelazny. 'You are hereby ordered to return immediately to Outpost Four, by the fastest possible route. Be advised that upon your arrival, Lieutenant Scispec Ehm'ayla, last known survivor of SV Raven, will stand trial to answer any and all charges resulting from the loss of said ship. Until that time, Lieutenant Ehm'ayla shall be relieved of all duties as a Combined Forces officer."

"I'm sorry, Ehm'ayla," Haliday said softly. "But orders are orders."

I'd been expecting this--but not so soon, nor in so brusque a manner. My own fault: if I'd stayed in my quarters, I would at least have been spared this all-too-public humiliation. When I could speak again I said, "Am I to be placed under arrest, sir?"

He frowned. "No," he said. "Of course not. They're not accusing you of anything, Lieutenant. They're just going by the book. Tell them what you know, truthfully, and you'll have nothing to worry about."

"I'm sure you're right, sir," I said. "I'm sorry--this is a new experience for me."

He nodded. "I understand," he said. "Believe me, I do." He paused. "In the meantime, however," he went on apologetically, "we have to go by the book too. I'm sure you won't take it personally when I ask you to please vacate the Control Deck."

My tail froze in mid-stroke, and I quickly hid my hands. My voice barely audible, I said, "Aye, sir."

I felt the eyes upon me as I turned and departed. But in stark contrast to Raven, the gazes which followed me now were sympathetic, even regretful. This was the second time in recent memory that I'd been ordered off a Control Deck; but unlike Antilles, Haliday had gained neither pleasure nor satisfaction from the act. I had that, at least.

In the corridor outside I slumped against the wall, dazed, my face in my hands. I had a problem now, one which might easily be insoluble: how much of the truth could I force myself to tell?


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