Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 63
Stories
Burnover
by K. D. Julicher
A World Without
by Aimee Ogden
Comrades in Arms
by Bud Sparhawk
Sin Titulo
by Dan Stout
IGMS Audio
The Life Cycles of Goldfish
Read by Stuart Jaffe
Vintage Fiction
The Rhythm Man
by James Beamon

Comrades in Arms
    by Bud Sparhawk

Comrades in Arms
Artwork by Tomislav Tikulin

Across the cold, grassy plateau lay scattered detritus washed up on the shores of a war that had ravaged the planet since the invasion. The bright mid-day light of the red sun blazing overhead threw the scene into harsh contrast. Jason knew the deep shadows hid as many bodies as were exposed and the remaining tall grass hid even more.

The patterns of the fallen human and alien forces appeared somewhat random. Here and there were overlapping arcs mowed in the plateau's tall grasses where the aliens' ticklers had ripped into the human force. Craters from the human heavy weapons punctuated areas where alien weapons had been destroyed.

After studying the patterns of death and destruction Jason concluded that ISOBEL, the unit's commander, along with the rest of her troops, must have been overrun. It looked like there had been enormous costs to both sides, and from where he stood, he could not determine which, if either, had emerged victorious.

But ISOBEL would know; that is, if he could rescue her. They'd given him this search because of his condition: busted head, torn actuators, and deteriorating life support system that made him useless for combat. He wasn't as strong or fast as he had been, but troops like him were still useful. Right now, searching this recent battleground seemed the best use.

He examined the areas where the majority of the alien and human remains were clustered in grisly detail. It was a scene from hell and one which left him, Cybermarine Sergeant Jason Ponderson, wondering where he could best search for ISOBEL's position.

He'd leave the rest of the battlefield to the Reaper squad to salvage whatever remains could be reused or repurposed.

There was a path across the plateau not far from where he'd been dropped. The hopper hadn't wanted to risk himself on the off chance that some remnant alien still had the firepower to bring him down if he got closer. "I'LL PICK YOU UP IN FIVE DAYS," he'd warned. "THIRTEEN HOURS. WON'T WAIT."

The most efficient path involved crossing ground torn asunder by the battle. Jason struggled to keep his damaged chassis upright. His autonomic balancing systems were barely keeping him from going ass over teacup as he scanned for anything that might present a threat. He kept his weapons ready just in case the hopper pilot's concerns proved valid.

He planned to head toward the site that had seen the most action first. That was the most probable location to find ISOBEL. IF she wasn't there he'd work his way outward for two days, then back to where the hopper should be arriving.

There was no sign of movement except for the wind-driven swaying of the plateau's grass near the rise. Most of the marines and soldiers had been rendered into scattered body parts by the aliens' vicious ticklers. That wasn't unexpected. The alien weapons were highly effective and even armored humans so very vulnerable.

As best he could guess, the troops here had been spread wide to reduce losses; but it hadn't done a lot of good. He had accounted for twenty troops by counting legs and dividing by two, as the ancient joke went, when he caught a furtive movement in the deep shadow of a crater that looked to have been caused by an HE round.

His eyes had automatically switched to IR a microsecond before his brain began analyzing the possible threat. He spotted a small heat source in the crater. He drew closer, readying his weapons should it be an alien, and hoping it wasn't.

The hotspot turned out to be a human half buried in rubble, not surprising considering how many he'd already seen, although how an intact human had fallen into the crater and so far from the other casualties was a minor puzzle.

Then the body moved.

Jason immediately began uncovering whoever was on the other end of the arm, tossing dirt aside until he exposed the armor's shoulder, helmet, chest plates, and finally, boots. The only obvious sign that the marine had been hit was a dent on his side. His breathing seemed steady, as was his heartbeat. His exposed skin felt a little cold, which would indicate shock or simply exposure to the chilly winter weather: Jason couldn't tell. He'd screamed as Jason was checking his body.

Jason suspected his injuries might be internal. "Where's it hurt?" he asked.

The marine's fingers fluttered at his dented side: No penetration so it had to be a broken rib or other internal damage, Jason thought, but he had neither the training not the tools to repair him.

"Mfggh. Wha 'append?" the marine groaned as Jason was giving him a sip of water.

"Your squad was mowed down by ticklers," Jason replied. "Why are you here, so far from the others?"

"Takin' a piss," the marine answered, "when somethin' hit me."

"Could have been covering fire. There's a ruined launcher nearby."

"No shit? Probably an effing Instance." the marine coughed.

He winced when Jason helped him stand and clutched at his side. "I can give you something for the pain."

"Pain's not bad. Don't need no damn drugs. By the way, name's Kraff, Thirty-second marine combat support specialist. Who, or should I say, what the hell are you?"

"Call me Jason. Reaper Sergeant First Class, Cybermarine Division."

Kraff drew back. "You're a damn zombie! I should have known when I saw your ugly face." He spit. "Sorry to disappoint you but my brain's not ready to harvest just yet, ghoul."

Jason ignored the insult. "I am searching for ISOBEL."

"Some brass idiot?" Kraff wheezed. "And why?"

"I can tag you for recovery. Might be a long wait, but your apparent injuries don't warrant expedient extraction. There are likely more serious things that need their attention."

"You're going to leave me here?" Kraff exclaimed with obvious alarm and then lapsed into a coughing fit. "What if some of them damn bugs are still around?"

"I expect no further threat from aliens," Jason replied. "You should be quite safe here while I continue my search."

Kraff reached up to grab Jason's arm. "I think the lieutenant said she was . . . over there." He waved an arm toward the horizon. "I'll go with you."

If Kraff was telling the truth his knowledge would help the search. "I have a large area to cover," Jason said. "I doubt you could keep up in your condition."

"You're not leaving me behind. I can keep up. Just get me something to eat and you'll see. A live marine's a whole lot better than a damned animated corpse."

Kraff had collapsed after following Jason's unsuccessful search for half the day. "Can't go any further. Let's stop here. Can't do much searching at night, can we?"

"I assure you that darkness does not hinder my vision," Jason replied as the red sun disappeared behind the distant mountains. "But you need to rest."

The smell must have been horrific from the way Kraff had been gagging. Or perhaps that was his reaction to seeing what marines looked like after a barrage of ticklers. Nevertheless, he slept.

Dawn lighted the area when Kraff awoke. Jason had found a few destroyed carriers during the night but none that could have carried ISOBEL. The scattered wreckage of Cybers and Instances compared to the relatively small number of flayed natural human bodies meant this element must have been a heavy mobile strike force. Alien carapaces littered the ground, most blown asunder, their weapons shattered, armor shredded and everything soaked with brown splatter. He could almost admire their bravery for attacking such a heavily armed unit.

"Up early, eh?" Kraff coughed and spit a gob of bloodied phlegm. "No rest for the weary, I guess." With that he struggled to his feet, bracing himself with a WK-24a he'd picked up from one of the dead bodies. Jason looked at the pack Kraff had been using as a pillow and noticed fresh blood stains, indicating a possible punctured lung.

"I'm starving," Kraff complained as he fumbled through the bloodied pack and pulled out two rations of Meals, Tactical, Single Serving and quickly devoured them. "Need to find more of these."

"I have spare rations you may need."

Kraft grimaced. "What: extra lubricating fluid and batteries?"

"I assure you that my rations are more nutritious than those." Jason indicated the empty wrappers in Kraff's hands. "In addition, mine will provide increased stamina. I can also give you drugs for the pain you are so obviously trying to conceal."

"I don't need any of your drugs, Zombie." Kraff's coughing fit revealed his lie.

Jason said nothing but as soon as Kraff turned to relieve himself, he injected a dose of pain killer into a combat bar. When Kraff was finished he handed him the bar. "For later," he explained.

Kraff accepted the bar without comment and stuck it into his pack. "Let's go find this girl of yours," he coughed. "Only don't walk so damn fast. I don't like it when you get out of sight."

Jason looked down at the tiny human. "I only have three days before rendezvous and there's a lot of territory to cover. As I said before, I can tag you for pickup. There's no need for you to accompany me."

Kraff shouted: "You're not leaving me to the damn bugs!" when Jason began to walk away.

Jason didn't look back.

It was early afternoon when Jason detected a faint signal on his T-band. He stopped and slowly turned in a circle to pinpoint the direction of the unexpected signal. It appeared to be strongest coming from the direction of a ruined battlewagon lacking its main turret and port side cannon.

Kraff stumbled up and wheezed. "Did we have to walk so friggin' far? Won't that burn our your batteries or something?"

"My energy stores are sufficient for this mission. Do you need drugs for the pain?"

Kraff shook his head. "Marines don't need drugs to keep up, Frankenstein. Pain don't bother me that much."

"You need to eat that bar I gave you. It will strengthen your resolve."

"I thought you zombies ate brains," Kraff laughed as he quickly consumed the doctored ration bar. "I guess I was more hungry than I thought. You have more of these?"

"Consuming a second bar now would seriously affect your health. These bars are quite powerful."

"I'll say. I'm feeling better already! Let's go."

Kraff started striding away when Jason told him to stop. "There's another casualty close by. Keep quiet but tell me if you see or hear anything unusual." He didn't expect any help from Kraff but at least it would keep the suddenly energetic marine from distracting him. Jason's eyes and ears were a magnitude more sensitive than Kraff's.

A short while later, as Jason identified the signal's source as the twisted wreck of a small mobile howitzer, lying on its side, and missing a drive wheel. Nearby one of its treads had been turned into a knot of tortured metal.

The feeble signal was stronger here. WHOIS? Jason queried and listened carefully for a reply. Had there been a wavering in the signal, an attempt at a reply? Or had it only been random noise from the dying howitzer's electronics?

"Why are you messing around with that junk?" Kraff demanded. "Let's keep moving and find your girl."

Jason ignored him. There was a definable variation in the signal now. On a hunch he switched to the k-band used for short-range communications. "WHOIS?" he repeated, and paused to listen.

"ABOUT TIME YOU GOT HERE," came the reply. I'VE BEEN WAITING FOREVER FOR A WRECKER."

"Sorry to disappoint you," Jason replied. "I'm Jason, Cyber Division."

"HYPERION IS THE NAME, FOURTH ARMORED. WAIT, DID YOU SAY 'CYBER?' DIDN'T ISOBEL SEND YOU? I'VE BEEN ASKING FOR PICKUP SINCE THAT DAMN ROCKET HIT ME."

"You've been wasting your time and energy. I couldn't pick up your signal. Matter of fact all I had to go on was the leakage from your electronics."

"Why are you staring at that pile of crap?" Kraff shouted. "We need to get moving if we're going to find what you're looking for."

"This is HYPERION," Jason answered. "He's an Instance who's been taken out of action."

"Screw it. Pull its plug and let's get moving. We don't have time to mess with busted up equipment."

"My accomplice just said that we should deactivate you. Do you agree?"

HYPERION's reaction was instantaneous. "HELL NO! I HAVEN'T BEEN BACKED UP FOR OVER A YEAR. YOU'D BE KILLING THIS VERSION OF ME. DON'T YOU TADPOLES HAVE ANY SYMPATHY FOR US POOR INSTANCES?"

The tadpole remark stung. "Kraff's not a Cyber. He's a Natural," Jason shot back. "Injured but functional."

"A DAMN EPHEMERAL? SHOOT HIM INSTEAD. I'M SURE THAT WOULD BE LESS OF A LOSS THAN ME."

Jason didn't reply, even though the suggestion did have a bit of appeal. "He says he knows where ISOBEL might be."

"HOW DOES HE KNOW? WHAT IF HE'S LYING?"

That was a very good question.

Kraff wasn't happy about sitting around while Jason attempted to repair the broken howitzer. As night fell he clutched his scavenged rifle tightly against his vest and stared into the darkness. "Would you stop banging around?" he yelled. "The damn bugs might hear you and come calling in the dark."

"Just as they would if they heard your shout," Jason replied. "Darkness doesn't bother me and I can assure you that no live aliens can approach without being detected."

What concerned him about Kraff was the amount of drugs he'd been consuming. He'd already used Jason's spare supply, leaving barely enough to last until he reached the pickup point.

"HOW ARE YOU DOING?" HYPERION inquired. "IS THE EPHEMERAL INTERFERING? WHY DON'T YOU PUT HIM OUT OF HIS MISERY."

"I am working as best as I can," Jason assured the howitzer. "There's only so much that I can do without help."

"AFRAID YOU'LL DAMAGE YOUR TITANIUM BONES?"

"My internal structure is as strong as your armor, thank you. Why don't I tag you for later pick up when the Reaper crew gets here."

"AND WHEN WILL THAT BE? MY POWER SUPPLY IS NEARLY DEPLETED AS IS. I HAVE ONLY FIFTY HOURS REMAINING."

"I've queried for an update on their estimated arrival time but have not yet received a reply." The Reaper crew's lack of an immediate response could mean that they were encountering difficulties. There were more than enough skirmishes taking place up and down the mountain chain to keep them busy.

He continued working with no success. "CAN YOU DOWNLOAD ME INSTEAD? WOULDN'T MIND LEAVING THIS COPY BEHIND."

"I have little memory capacity for storage and I am as anxious as you to preserve my essence."

"A little help would be appreciated," he told Kraff.

"Yeah, like with a broken rib that's starting to hurt again I doubt I'd be much use working on that useless hunk of metal."

Jason fumed. "You can still use your brain to think of something that will help us get HYPERION back in action, Kraff."

Kraff sneered. "It's just a damn machine, not a person. Besides, without treads on its left side how the hell could it move?"

That was a very good point that neither he nor HYPERION could answer.

"Hey, these machines have a computer that runs them, don't they?" Jason could not see where Kraff was going with this. "I'm thinking that they must have some way of moving the box from one machine to another so why don't we just pull the computer and carry it with us?"

"TELL THAT MEATHEAD THAT I AM NOT AN EFFING COMPUTER. NEVERTHELESS, THAT'S NOT AN UNREASONABLE IDEA," HYPERION replied when Jason relayed the idea. "I AM LOCATED AT THE BASE OF MY TURRET." He then went on to describe the field extraction process. "REMOVAL WON'T DAMAGE ME. I CAN RETAIN TWENTY HOURS OF EMERGENCY POWER."

Which, Jason thought should give them barely enough time to reach the rendezvous.

Jason completed extracting HYPERION just as brown dawn lit the clouds above the mountains. He'd intended to have Kraff carry HYPERION but the awkward two hundred kilogram unit was more than even a healthy marine could have managed. The oddly shaped weight presented few problems for him, although it would slow him to Kraff's stumbling pace.

"I HAVE NO OPERATING SENSORS, TADPOLE," HYPERION said. "HOWEVER I DO RETAIN TACTICAL MAPS OF OUR DEPLOYMENT AND CAN IDENTIFY THE LOCATIONS OF OTHER INSTANCES YOU SHOULD CHECK. THERE SHOULD BE TEN IN THE NEXT FEW KILOMETERS."

That information would be helpful, Jason thought. One of those locations might have COMMAND's carrier. "But what about the Cybers and Naturals?" he added.

"WHO CARES? THE MEATS ARE PROBABLY DEAD AND ANY TADPOLES WOULD BE TOO DAMAGED FOR YOUR HELP. SEARCHING FOR THEM WILL DELAY REACHING THE RENDEZVOUS."

Which meant HYPERION would be of little help. "Pick up your stuff," he told Kraff. "We're moving out."

Kraff grumbled as he stuffed things he had gathered from a fallen kit into his mouth. He had some difficulty getting to his feet but did not ask for help as he gathered his scavenged supplies.

Still heading toward Kraff's pointed location, Jason had come across more bodies, Cyber, Natural, and one Instance so heavily damaged that he could not tell what it had been. "AUXILIARY MORTAR UNIT," HYPERION said, which was informative but hardly helpful.

The repeated bloody carnage had not, could not bother him, but it was having a profound effect on Kraff, who stayed away from the ruined bodies. Twice he had thrown up, a waste of drugs and rations, but managed to struggle through.

Towards evening, as the fading sun softened the harsh scenery of death and destruction, Jason detected movement about half a kilometer ahead of them. "Down," he ordered. Kraff dropped immediately and brought his WK to his good shoulder. He appeared confused as to where he should be pointing it.

Jason lowered his heavily loaded body carefully, trying to balance HYPERION as he dropped. "Movement ahead. Half a klick." He pointed.

After a few moments he raised his head and used his IR sight to find a heat source. Nothing. Had he been mistaken? "Shift to your left. Large boulder. Stay alert." As Kraff shifted Jason caught a sudden flare; too cold to be human, too small to be a Cyber, and certainly not an Instance's exhaust.

"Is it a bug? Kraff whispered and quietly shoved a round into the breech of his WK.

"WHAT IS HAPPENING?" HYPERION demanded.

"Possible hostile half a klick ahead. Identity uncertain."

"NO INSTANCES WERE IN THAT AREA," which again was informative but unhelpful.

A sudden darting movement appeared to the right of the first sighting. It had the usual lack of detail IR provided. It had been moving quickly away. "Just an animal," he said as he got to his feet. "We need to keep moving."

Kraff groaned as he came to his feet. "I sure hope those ugly eyes of yours can see in the dark because I certainly can't."

Jason didn't wince at the insult. He knew the Naturals' aversion to the multiple eyes that adorned his nose-less face, just as they accused Cybers of being cold-blooded resurrections that were more machine than man. So what if he'd had to practically die before he became a Cybermarine. He was faster and stronger than the toughest Natural and probably the best fighter a squad could have. That is, until the advent of the Instanced.

HYPERION's "tadpole" insult had been all too true because that was the next progression after being a Cyber. There was a certain beauty in the progression of being a natural human to becoming an augmented Cybermarine, and finally an installed Instance. The only drawback was . . .

Something heavy suddenly struck, sending him toppling to the ground and HYPERION tumbling away. He began to turn when there was a sudden loud burst from Kraff's WK. Jason leapt to his feet and saw half of a bug smoldering beside him.

"Glad this baby's got tracking capability. I've had it on full automatic since you spotted the bogey." Kraff boasted as he patted the side of the WK. "Saved your ass."

"That was incredibly stupid," Jason shot back. "I was in no danger and the sound from that model can be detected from kilometers away. You may have put us at unnecessary risk." He mentally kicked himself for not having Kraff shut off the WK's tracker earlier.

The cold rain that had been threatening since daybreak finally began descending in torrents, turning the plateau into slick mud, and making forward progress difficult. Kraff had fallen multiple times and was coated with mud and things he probably didn't want to think about. He slipped each time he tried to retain his footing.

The time for rendezvous was approaching and Jason had nothing to show for the time he'd been given except a damaged Instance and a wounded marine.

In the last day Kraff had become surprisingly energetic and, although he'd frequently fallen behind, always managed to catch up. Jason thought the drugs in the combat bars must be having a more significant effect than expected. Or maybe Kraff hadn't been as seriously damaged as he'd thought.

Kraft had indicated that ISOBEL had been on a slight rise. If she had, she'd have made a better target. The area around the rise was tormented. Overlapping craters were witness to the intensity of fighting. Jason carefully examined every possible wreck for some indication of COMMAND's location.

He spotted Kraff busy searching the gear of the fallen and, as he watched, saw the marine rip open a medical packet. Was he self-medicating? That was dangerous if he was supplementing the measured dosages Jason had been administering. Supporting himself on emergency drugs for more than the short term they'd been designed for carried a heavy penalty. No wonder Kraff had been so hungry; his body needed to replace what the drugs were draining.

It wasn't difficult to determine that the heavily damaged communications van had held ISOBEL. The vehicle's undercarriage was separated from an armored body that had been scattered as random pieces over a sixty square meter area. Fused components that once housed ISOBEL, none larger than Jason's hand, were indistinguishable from each other. The case that had once held COMMAND's Instance and memory banks looked torn and twisted as if by a giant's hand into a pretzel of silicon and metal. He knew without further examination that there would be no recovery of the battle data, no possibility of rescuing the genius level commander.

"I WAS HOPING FOR SUCCESS," HYPERION remarked when Jason informed him of the extensive damage. "BUT ISOBEL IS ALWAYS BACKED UP BEFORE AN ENGAGEMENT. THERE WILL ONLY BE A LOSS OF THIS BATTLE DATA."

Jason swore. "Yes, but we've also lost whatever went wrong. ISOBEL should never have been placed at risk."

"I SUSPECT SOME DAMNED EPHEMERAL WAS RESPONSIBLE. THEY CARE LITTLE ABOUT WE INSTANCES."

Jason wondered about that. It did seem that the caravan had included more Instances and Cybers than Naturals. But . . . .

"Are we finished here?" Kraff interrupted. "I thought you wanted to find your woman commander, not stare at rubbish."

"This," Jason said slowly, indicating the wreckage that surrounded them. "This was ISOBEL."

"She's just some stupid machine?" Kraff wheezed. "I thought you were looking for a dead woman's remains, not more trash. Where are your priorities?" He abruptly fell to the muddy ground and began coughing. From his appearance Jason could tell that the drugs were finally taking their toll.

"Kraff, can you continue? I cannot leave you here. Your only chance for survival is reaching the rendezvous."

Kraff struggled to his feet but after three hesitant steps he collapsed again and began breathing heavily. It was half a day's march to the pickup point and he doubted Kraff could make it. "You'll have to carry me," Kraff wheezed. "I can't go another step."

"I cannot carry both of you," Jason replied and wondered about his options. If he tagged and abandoned Kraff he doubted the marine would survive until the retriever team arrived. His own reserves were nearly exhausted and any additional weight would further tax his body.

"Why don't you dump that computer you're carrying," Kraff suggested.

"How long could you last if I left you here?" he asked HYPERION.

"YOU CANNOT ABANDON ME." HYPERION replied. "I HAVE ONLY A FEW HOURS REMAINING, LEAVE THE MEAT. WE ARE JUST TWENTY KILOMETERS FROM YOUR PICKUP POINT."

Jason was nearly exhausted; he'd given Kraff all of his spare rations and some of his own. Worse, carrying HYPERION was making him burn through his reserves.

"Can you give me a little help," Kraff requested. "The pain's getting worse." The marine's dragging steps gave witness to his failing energy.

Jason had only one drug dose left to keep Kraff from total collapse. He knew Kraff's body would crash and pay dearly for the drugs--that is, if he made it to a field hospital.

HYPERION announced. "I HAVE IS ONE POINT FIVE HOURS BEFORE SHUTDOWN. CAN YOU PICK UP THE PACE?"

"Not without abandoning the Natural. He appears to be on his last legs." Kraff was sitting wearily on the carapace of a dead alien, breathing heavily and shivering so hard that his teeth chattered. He'd lost the WK somewhere along the way.

Jason coldly debated his next actions. He didn't have the strength to continue carrying HYPERION, but if he abandoned the Instance he'd expire. He knew HYPERION wouldn't really die; somewhere they had a backup that could be resurrected to fight again. Nobody wasted a trained and combat-tested Instance. Sure, the restored HYPERION would not recall anything of his life since his backup date, but that would be a small price to pay. All HYPERION would lose would be the terrible memories of this failed battle.

Nobody would know if Jason left him to expire. He'd just be another broken machine among a field of too many.

If he abandoned Kraff, on the other hand, he could easily die. His injuries were not so life-threatening that he'd be transitioned into a Cybermarine nor had he the combat experience that would make him effective. Besides, Kraff had been nothing but a burden since his rescue. Bigoted, opinionated, and dumb, he'd matter little to the Force after his recovery, that is if he didn't get retired to breed another generation of slow and stupid Naturals. But he owed the man for helping. He had saved him from the surviving alien.

As to himself, no one would mourn his passing. Most Naturals tolerated the Cybers only because of their utility. He'd backed up just six months earlier so his own instance, his essence, could be used as an Instance like HYPERION. As an already damaged Cyber, he was expendable.

Considering all that, the decision was easy.

"Eat this," Jason said as he handed Kraff his last doctored ration. He hoped the drugs and meagre nourishment would get the marine the rest of the way.

He lifted Kraff to his feet and, supporting him, began heading for the waiting chopper.

Kraff woke. Bright light came through a nearby window and illuminated the soft blue walls of what was obviously a hospital room. He ached all over, worse than the hangover he'd had after his last bender. As he tried to remember how he had gotten here fragments, little more than snapshots came to mind; a hulking monster making him eat disgusting and distasteful rations, a ruined howitzer machine, and firing a WK.

"Awake at last," a nurse said cheerfully as she came through the door. "You've been unconscious for weeks, soldier, and no wonder with the amount of drug residue in your system. It was lucky you stumbled on that extraction chopper. Tell me, how did you survive when so many others died?"

"Good living, but I think I used one of those animated corpses. I tell you, the sooner we can get rid of those monstrosities the better."

The pretty nurse smiled. "The war's almost over. I'm sure we'll get rid of them soon."


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