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CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE: MEET THE PRESS, PART TWO

A great woman, a philosopher and novelist insufficiently appreciated in her own time, once observed that you can find out just about anything you wish about a person by taking a good, hard look at who they sleep with. I’ve generally found this to be true, myself. Maybe the question we ask when we meet someone for the first time shouldn’t be “How do you do?” but “Who do you do?”

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

A flattened spheroid about four inches in diameter flew past her face, its coin-sized camera eyes swivelling around to keep her in view.

There were at least three more of the things hovering in the room, peering at Julie’s possessions, the photographs that she kept of her deceased husband and other members of her family, and of the friends and associates she’d had over the length of her long and productive life.

For some reason, the phrase “batteries not included” came to mind. She hoped they’d stay away from the knick-knack shelves, mostly occupied by mementos her children and grandchildren had created for her.

The cameras were very distracting, she thought, although they’re sort of cute, in an overly technologized way. She knew they were the very latest thing—the very latest thing, technologically, very nearly always came from Mars—and wouldn’t be in use downsystem for months. The broadcast media in East America might not see them for years.

Still and all, she thought, here she was again, being interviewed about her latest book in the convenience and comfort of her own front parlor. And an extremely comfortable place it was, indeed, in which to be interviewed. Most Martian homes had formal parlors like this one to keep strangers—even relatively important ones like this young 3DTV correspondent—out of the rest of a home intended to be a family refuge.

” … Conchita and Desmondo,” the interviewer was saying, “once again wandering through the land of Wimpersnits and Oogies, is that it?”

“What else could it possibly be … ” Julie smiled as sweetly as she could. Her interviewer was an attractive young black woman in her twenties, named Madison Moire. She was dressed in the latest high summer fashion on Mars, what amounted to a silver bikini with what could only be described as miniature bead curtains hanging from both the upper and lower parts of the outfit, in front and back. “… when my young readers, their older brothers and sisters, and their parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles keep asking me so politely for more?”

Madison turned toward the nearest flying camera and declared, “The title of the new Julie Segovia Ngu book is Conchita and the Brain Eaters.” She turned back to Julie. “The word in the book publishing trade is that it’s been banned already, without being read, in East America.”

“You can’t buy that kind of advertising,” Julie laughed and shook her head. “But it’s not quite true that it hasn’t been read in East America—by East American leaders, that is. They got the book before anybody else did—believing that their operatives had stolen it from us—in the form of bound, uncorrected galley proofs. We wanted to make sure that the politicians and bureaucrats would be aghast and noisily outlaw it, so that East American kids would know it was on the way.”

The interviewer was startled. “But Aunt Julie, if they can’t buy it—pardon me, I mean Miss Ngu.” Her parents had been neighbors for decades. Msdison had played on Julie’s front porch since she was three, and like every other Martian child worthy of the name, had grown up reading her books.

Julie grinned. “That’s all right, Maddy. It’s a small planet, and I think your viewers are already aware that we know each other. But you’re right. On the official, legal open market they can’t buy my book, it’s true. Or any of my books. However there’s an exceptionally healthy black market in East America. In fact it’s the only thing keeping them alive, economically. We have advance orders for over a million copies in East America, alone. And, of course, being banned there is very good for sales everywhere else. We’ll also be offering audio recordings, to be broadcast across the border from West America. In fact I’ve finished recording the book already, in both English and Spanish.”

“And your latest idea,” Madison said, half to her audience, half to Julie, “a Conchita and Desmondo theme park, is due to be completed … when?”

“Two years from now,” Julie replied, “near Armstrong City, in the Moon.

Madison took a deep breath and let it out. “In their most recent denunciation of you and your works, the New York Journal of Domestic Tranquility described Brain Eaters as … now where did I put that? … okay, here it is: “a savage and ruthless character assassination of brave psychological counsellors within the public school system who tirelessly and unselfishly give of themselves, in order to assist helpless children to survive the numberless and endless catastrophes that are inflicted on them and society by unrestrained individuals and individualism.”

Julie threw back her head and laughed. “Yes, I read that article last week. We plan to use it as a blurb. When I was a little girl, trying to survive the New Jersey public school system, we called them ‘psychovultures’.”

“Psychovultures?”

“Psychovultures, travelling from school to school in the wake of some horrible tragedy, making damn sure that we kids took the ‘right’ lessons from whatever had happened: you must never, ever try to defend yourself, or do anything else on your own; guns and other weapons are both evil and useless; individuals who resent being stolen from or pushed around by the state are either villains or crazy; your parents are ignorant Neanderthals; your teachers and the police are your friends.”

“Well then, I guess it’s good that we don’t have any of them on Mars,” said the interviewer, unaccustomed to straightforward talk like this.

“It’s even better that we don’t have any public schools, and damned few private ones. I helped see to that in the early days. Most Martians are home-schooled, and therefore well-educated, properly civilized, and prepared to look after themselves, psychologically and physically.”

******

The voice was light and bantering, calculated to a perfect tenor.

“Well, it seems that we’ve had a lot of Ngus in the news lately, Miss Khalidov.”

“I did not know that, er … people of your, um … kind made jokes,” replied Jasmeen, wondering why she’d agreed to this. She was certain that at some level, she ought to be feeling humiliated. “‘Ngus in the news’—very clever.”

“I thought so, too, actually. And I also understand that you’re practically one of the Ngus, yourself: travelling with them wherever they happen to go, living with them, working with them on an everyday basis.”

“Yes, that’s true. They—”

“You’re a sister to young Llyra, the celebrated ice skater, a daughter to Ardith, the famous Pallatian scientist. And to her husband Adam,” the interviewer’s tenor was speculative, “terraformer of Ceres, or to the dashing asteroid hunter and notorious gunfighter Wilson Ngu, who knows—”

The sentence came to a halt because Jasmeen had laid a hand on the ten millimeter autopistol she was carrying under her angora sweater in the so-called “appendix” position. It was a very familiar gesture to the interviewer, having come from Jasmeen’s native planet Mars, and one of several reasons it was electronic and mechanical, rather than human.

In the embarrassed silence that followed, Jasmeen looked it over. It had once been enameled white, and was not quite as tall as she was, conical, with a rounded base like a child’s boxing toy two and a half feet in diameter, scorched blck by repeated reentries in the Martian atmosphere. It tapered to a point six inches across, the top of which was hinged back at present to reveal a pair of 3DTV eyes and several other kinds of sensors in the underside of the “lid”. It stood on three spindly legs that folded into the machine, each ending in a powered wheel about a foot in diameter, with an electric motor in each hub.

In several places it was labelled “Syrtis Systems Telebot PCG 505F”.

It had wanted to interview her in the apartment she shared with Llyra, who was off at a jumps clinic just now at a small rink in the little town of Leinster, a few hundred miles west of Armstrong. An underground high speed passenger train made the run in minutes, and coaches were not invited, which gave Jasmeen a rare afternoon all to herself.

The request for an interview had come by SolarNet before Llyra had left the apartment. Otherwise, Jasmeen, who was irregular in her comm habits, might not have seen it. She’d replied that she was amenable, but not here, in her home. How about a nice, wide-open restaurant, instead?

She’d been startled when the reply came back to her in only a few minutes. Obviously her would-be inteviewer was not on Mars, even though the interview was being done for one of the large Martian news services.

“I’m in orbit around the Moon at the moment,” she was told. “I can be ready in half an hour if that suits you, but not in a restaurant. People would stare and ask questions and we wouldn’t get anything accomplished.”

Jasmeen asked, “Why is that?”

“Because I’m a semiautonomous robot, the first of my kind. My name is Lucy. I get sent on these trips because I can conduct an interview without any time lag, and then transmit it back to Mars ahead of my return.”

“Very interesting,” Jasmeen observed. “Makes sense.”

Which was why they were here now, in a small corner of a cavernous but almost-deserted maintenance bay, at the Arthur C. Clark Memorial spaceport where Lucy had just landed. The robot stood on the oil- stained floor. Jasmeen sat with her knees crossed on a big wheeled tool cabinet painted red and white with a Snap-On banner. Jasmeen had brought her breakfast in a brown plastic bag and stopped for coffee on the way. She adored the garage smells of grease and solvents and welding. It seemed a fitting environment for a conversation with a robot.

“Now we are starting all over again,” she informed the machine, gently shaking her jelly doughnut at it. “This time you are being as polite as can be or you are going home full of holes. You understand this?”

“Yes, I understand, Miss Khalidov,” it said. “Please do not shoot me.”

“Very well. And you may call me Jasmeen. Yes, I am working for Ngu family. My parents and Llyra’s grandparents—Billy and Julie Ngu—are friends from Martian Revolution. I coach their granddaughter Llyra who is, as you say, celebrated performer. She is also beautiful figure skater who never stops learning and never gives up. Coaching her is pleasure.”

“You’re a native Martian, Jasmeen. Llyra, your student, was born and raised on the terraformed asteroid Pallas—at one twentieth of a standard gee. Can you tell my viewers what you two are doing in the Moon?”

Jasmeen nodded. “Student Llyra wishes there to be no place in System where she cannot skate. Coach Jasmeen wishes to assist her in this.”

“Quite an ambition,” said the robot. “And I take it her ambition includes skating on Earth itself—at the risk of shattered bones, damaged growth plates, ruined ligaments and tendons, and perhaps even serious heart problems. Do you ever worry about Llyra surviving it, Jasmeen?”

Jasmeen took a contemplative nibble on her jelly doughnut and thought. “Is not my place to worry, Lucy. Is my place to help make happen.”

******

They sat together “outdoors”, on the decorative brick rim of the construction dome’s “see-ment pond”, their backs to the blank white concrete wall where 3D pictures of Ceres taken from orbit were being projected.

“So what you’re saying, Dr. Ngu, is that the entire planet—er, planetoid—is now covered, pole to pole, in a single, solid sheet of plastic.”

They could look up now and see the stuff draped over the dome, which had been made of the same material. The sun, never terribly bright this far away—about twice as far as it was from Earth—appeared even dimmer than usual, and it felt cold and a little sad inside.

“That’s right, Miss Graham, a single, solid piece of very special ‘smart’ plastic, draped from pole to pole—except for the craters at the opposite poles, of course. The plastic there is firmly anchored and tightly gasketed, in very special steel and concrete clamps just below the crests of their ring-mountain rims. The crater floors will remain in total vacuum once the rest of our little world has its own atmosphere.”

“And the two polar craters will become your spaceports. You see, I was paying attention, after all.” She leaned toward him, displaying a deep and ample cleavage. “And Dr. Ngu—Adam—do please call me Honey.”

Honey had finally been assigned a camera and audio man, a young fellow with tightly-curled blond hair, pale blue eyes, and a perpetually cynical expression on his face. He looked down at his feet and suppressed a knowing chuckle. The word, he was aware, around the water cooler at the Interplanetary Interactive Information Service that employed them both, was “Whatever Honey wants, Honey gets”. Personally, he found that he was immune to Honey’s putative charms. That may have had something to do with a certain golden-skinned, almond-eyed girl waiting for him back home in Vancouver.

They were expecting their first child in three months.

Adam surprised him—and Honey—by replying, “I guess I’ll stick with ‘Miss Graham’ for now, if you don’t mind. But you’re right about the polar craters. Right now we’re trying to decide what to call them. We Pallatians named our polar craters—rather, the spaceports located there—after the discoverers of Earth’s poles, Peary and Admundsen.”

“Peary and Admundsen,” Honey repeated, as if it were the first time she’d ever heard those names. Very likely, it was. Unlike most news media people, she was relatively intelligent, but like the vast majority of her professional colleagues, she was very poorly educated and didn’t really care enough to do anything about it. Knowing things, she’d found, just got in the way. “Then why don’t you have a naming contest?”

He grinned. “That’s a good idea, Miss Graham, we just might do that.”

“In the meantime, though … ” She tried to regain control of the interview.

“In the meantime, though, with completion of the last hypersonic weldment or seam—and with it, the entire plastic atmospheric canopy—the Ceres Terraformation Project is taking a well-deserved day off, to sit back, relax, and lift a glass or two.” He lifted his own. “It’s official.”

She blinked. She hadn’t seen the glass mug. “Of … ?”

“Of Old Pallatian Amber Ale. Look here on the label: portraits of Wild Bill Curringer, Raymond Louis Drake-Tealy, and Mirelle Stein—which is appropriate, somehow. Would you care for one, Miss Graham? It happens to be Ceres’ most popular import. Did you know we have a New Belgium brewery right there in beautiful downtown Curringer? We need some rest before we commit ourselves to the next big task in of terraforming Ceres.”

“And that would be … ?” She’d like to have had a beer about now, but she couldn’t even show Dr. Ngu actually drinking one on 3DTV, under East American broadcast agreements, let alone be seen drinking, herself.

“Come on, now, Miss Graham, you’re smarter than that. You tell me.”

She blinked again. “Well, er, placing the thousand-mile cables that hold the plastic atmospheric canopy down once there’s air inside it. They’ll be anchored at the poles, too. In fact you’ve already sunk the … ”

“The piers.” He gave her an encouraging grin. “Yes, we have, along the polar ring-mountain crests, again, just outside of the canopy gasketing.”

She struggled to regain focus again. What was it about this tall, gangly, slightly-balding guy? She’d have to ask that little Asian secretary of his, who was obviously completely gone on him. “Dr. Ngu, I’ve been here on Ceres enough times, for long enough, and seen enough by now, to understand that you’re a builder to the very core of your being. You’re proud of your work on this asteroid, and with reason. You’ve been entrusted with the most ambitious engineering job in human history.”

“So far,” he told her. “So far. I often have to remind myself of that.”

She smiled. “So far, then. Any special problems you anticipate now?”

He shrugged. “No, it’s basically the same engineering that was accomplished on Pallas over three generations ago, only on a larger scale, of course. Being the first to do it, though. I’ll bet that was hard.”

“No problems, then?” She sounded disappointed.

“I didn’t say that. Ceres is a carbonaceous chondrite, almost one hundred percent—even purer than Pallas was; there are reasons for that I’ll leave to the astrophysicists to explain—so we don’t have all of the raw metal onsite to work with that we’d like to have. But the factory ships, over a hundred of them in orbit above Ceres, put out the specifications, and asteroid hunters bring them whatever we need.”

Sometimes, Adam mused, he envied the asteroid hunters like his son, and regretted that he hadn’t become one of them, himself. He might have found the Diamond Rogue by now, or that other legendary giant jewel, the Big Rock Candy Mountain. In any case, it might possibly have saved him a great deal of trouble later on in life.

“And we’ll see you here to lift a glass to the successful cable laying … ?”

He laughed. “About this time next year.”

“Very well then, thank you, Dr. Ngu.”

“Thank you, Miss Graham.”

She glanced at her camera carrier—she’d given up wearing the Sony QDH-616G SuperMedia spectacles herself; they didn’t give her enough face time which was death in this business—and signalled a stop.

“You see, now, Miss Graham,” Adam told her before she could speak. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? You’re really much more intelligent than you give yourself credit for, and I think you know a deal more, as well.”

Nobody had ever told her that before. She was really quite moved. Was she starting to fall for this guy? She hoped to hell not—a wife and a girlfriend, two hundred million miles from home. “Is that so?” she replied, as casually as she could manage. “So then, what will it take to get you to call me by my first name? Everybody else does, you know.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me. How about if you were to sign on as a colonist?”

“I—” Beyond that, she was speechless. “Ah … er … ”

Her cameraman laughed. “I’ll sign on, Doc. My first name is Burt.”

“Well,” Adam told Honey, “it’s a start.”

******

“No, sir. I didn’t suppose there would be much call for a 3DTV cameraman on Ceres just yet, Dr. Ngu.” Honey’s assistant had left his equipment—there wasn’t much; the camera itself, with its built-in lights, he had stuck in a thigh pocket of his baggy work trousers—at the decorative pool to walk back with Adam to the Project head office. “But I learn quickly and there are plenty of other things to do.”

Apparently this young fellow is dead serious, thought Adam. His enthusiasm could make up for any lack of skills he might have. Maybe the Project could use a camera and audio man. I’ll have to think about it.

“And your family … ?” Of course he could always be trying to get away from his obligations, like many a settler on Pallas, a century ago.

“My wife’s first name,” Burt grinned from ear to ear, “means ‘songbird’ in Mandarin, Dr. Ngu. I don’t know our kid’s first name yet, because we haven’t been formally introduced. I’ll bring them back with me—or stay here and send for them—if you’ll just give the word.”

Adam nodded. “Then I think—”

Suddenly, a dozen harsh klaxons began going off, filling the air with obnoxious and frightening noises. This was the alarm ordinarily reserved—it had never been set off until this moment—for a catastrophic breach of the dome. Adam forgot about Burt, his family, and everything else but the present emergency as he hurried into his office.

Inside, Ingrid’s beautiful eyes were wide with apprehension, but she had already gotten emergency self-contained breathing apparatus out of a closet for them both and was standing at his desk, playing his keyboard like a concert pianist. She moved aside when she saw him arrive.

She said, “Your brother’s onscreen for you, Dr. Ngu.”

“Thanks, Ingrid, will you find a chair for—” He looked back. Burt was long gone, to check on Honey or his 3DTV gear, perhaps both. “Never mind. Let’s see what’s happening. Is there still coffee in that thing?”

Lindsay’s worried visage almost filled the screen. Behind his brother, Adam could make out the interior of one of the Project’s gamera. At the controls, he could see the back of Arleigh’s shaggy head.

“What’s up, Lindsay?” Adam asked. “Was it you who tripped that alarm?”

Lindsay nodded. “Yeah, I asked one of the second shift hands to do that for me. I figured you might want a little time to gather up your possessions and precious souvenirs before you evacuate—if you’re lucky. We’re about a thousand miles from the dome right now, headed away.”

“Evacuated? Why?” demanded Adam.

“Well, we just got word—and pictures—from the factory vessel Herschel that the atmospheric canopy is on fire and burning outward in a circle about three hundred miles in diameter as of ten minutes ago.”

“But—” Adam found himself at a loss for words. “That plastic’s supposed to be completely fireproof. I conducted the goddamned tests myself.”

“Language, brother dear,” Lindsay grinned. “Watch your goddamned language.”

Arleigh turned toward the pickup as Lindsay moved aside. “I hate to say it, Ad, but it looks like sabotage to me. The images that we downloaded from the Herschel show a great big explosion right in the middle of absolute nowhere—one asks why—then a circle of fire going away from Ground Zero, initially at about six thousand feet per second.

Lindsay added, “It seems to have slowed down considerably since then.”

Adam nodded. “So it’s using up something it needs to keep on burning?”

“More likely spreading it thinner and thinner, I think,” Arleigh answered.

Adam nodded again. “A catalyst, then. Think it’ll get to the dome?”

Lindsay was looking at another screen. “The computer says it will, yes, about this time tomorrow.” He looked at Adam. “What’ll we do, Boss?”

His brother had never called him that before. Without hesitation, Adam said, “Each of you take a gamera to opposite positions on the burn perimeter. Station two more of the machines between you. We’ll have to calculate the proper radius as we go, depending on the burn rate.”

“Gotcha,” Lindsay answered. “Then what?”

Adam explained what he wanted them to do. “I’ll leave one gamera here for emergencies, and I’ll take the sixth to the center of the burn.”

“How come?” Lindsay and Arleigh had spoken simultaneously.

“I mean,” he told them, “to find out exactly what sons-of-bitches did this to us. While I’m headed in that general direction, send me every pixel that the Herschel took. Then ask them to do another scan, of the very center of the explosion, at as high a resolution as possible. I’m heading for my transport right now. Ingrid, would you please—”

“Right away, Dr. Ngu!”

He turned to find Honey and Burt right behind him. “May we go, too?”

He started to tell them no, reflexively. Then he shook his head in resignation. “It looks like it’s turning into a party. Why the hell not?”

******

The airlock light turned green. Not knowing who was up front, he shouted toward the bow of the craft, “I got the back door sealed and locked!”

Lindsay reentered the new gamera they’d sent out to him, his heavy duty industrial hand laser beginning to smoke a little once it was out of the vacuum and the utter cold of the Cerean surface. His brother Arleigh had gone ahead with the original machine taking a crewman who had arrived at the arranged spot with this one, and would be running through a similar routine to this, several hundred miles away.

Conferring with Adam by radio, they’d figured the whole thing out on the fly. What they had to handle here, basically, he’d told them, was a forest fire, and they’d agreed. Lindsay had spent his teenage years smokejumping in the deep, endless forests of Pallas. Arleigh had once been a volunteer fireman in Curringer. All three of the brothers understood that they were trying to save the future of an entire world.

“I’ve made the initial cuts, and set the hooks,” he informed the individual in the lefthand seat, as he set his laser aside and belted himself into the other seat. This was the individual who’d brought him the gamera from the dome, but the hadn’t had time for introductions, and he wasn’t even consciously aware of whoever was beside him, now, except in the present context. It didn’t really matter. His brother didn’t hire unreliable individuals. Lindsay’s eyes remained glued to a screen to his right, showing the fire’s inexorable progress around the asteroid.

His mind was having more than a little difficulty trying to absorb the bizarre fact that he and his brothers were fighting a fire in a vacuum.

He ran his fingers over a keyboard, then peered at the results on the screen for a moment. Outside, the sky seemed crowded with fliers of various designs and types, sweeping their lights over the surface, to all apparences at random. It didn’t require much reaction mass to keep machines like these aloft at one-tenth of a gee, but occasionally he could feel the gamera shudder in their backwash as they passed overhead.

“Let’s start warming up those forward lasers,” he told the pilot. “Give us about twenty feet of altitude to get the right spread between them.”

He peered out through a side port, wondering if they’d see the fire coming. From the tone of the reports he was receiving, it wasn’t a spectacular thing to behold, simply a smoldering line of stubborn, slow destruction, gradually eating up everything that everybody on Ceres had accomplished out here over the past several years. Suddenly he knew how farmers must feel about hail—or the Mormons about grashoppers.

Anonymous in a virtual reality navigation helmet and a pair of VR gloves, the pilot of the machine nodded, pushed forward on two big invisible levers, and the gamera rose smoothly to the altitude he’d specified. Lindsay liked the feel of real controls in his hands much better.

A pair of heavy lasers in the craft’s chin, much larger and more powerful than Lindsay’s, began cutting through the tough plastic just ahead of the gamera, continuing two of the cuts Lindsay had started by hand. A third cut was perpendicular to the first two, and a fourth, actually the first he’d made, and also perpendicular, lay ten miles ahead.

As the machine moved forward, now, a pair of big titanium hooks trailing behind it lifted a strip of canopy behind them, leaving a fifty-foot swath of bare rock that they hoped the burn couldn’t get across.

Meanwhile, the ‘comm system was full of curses and exclamations, rude suggestions, and discussions of various people’s ancestry. He could see Arleigh on a screen and wondered briefly who was bossing the other two rigs. That didn’t matter, either. The other vehicles were out here, now, doing exactly the same thing as his own gamera was, creating a wide firebreak that was intended to isolate the strange burn, saving the remainder of the atmospheric canopy—the computer said possibly two thirds of it—if they could only work quickly enough.

Twenty miles along the line, ten miles ahead of the original cut, the gamera began to labor under a load it had never been constructed to bear, even at a tenth of a gee. The limit had been calculated in advance. The gamera now had a ten-mile strip of canopy plastic in tow.

The pilot brought the craft down to within a few feet of the ground again, and Lindsay, who had never even bothered to remove his envirosuit, rehelmeted, hopped outside, and cut across the plastic again with his laser. He watched as the gamera pulled the stuff—he was not the first to observe it was like working with flexible glass—to the non-fire side of the break for possible salvage later on.

Once the entire ten mile strip was well clear of the firebreak, the pilot picked him up and they rode back ten miles to where Lindsay restarted the long cuts with his laser and reset the big hooks in the plastic.

Hot and thirsty, he climbed back aboard again.

He removed his helmet—his hair was soaked as if he’d just come out of the rain, although the suit’s nanites had kept the inside of the helmet dry—and shouted at the pilot. “Hey, you got any beer aboard?”

The pilot pulled her flimsy VR helmet off and turned to face him briefly. “You look more like you need a towel than a beer, Lindsay Ngu. I have just heard from your brother Arleigh—between the four gamera crews, we’re already more than ten percent done. There’s some Gator-Ade, and a whole bunch of meal packs. No beer for us until we finish!”

Lindsay blinked. “Ingrid? What the living hell are you doing out here?”

The girl grinned. “Saving my home, sir, just like you’re saving yours. Now if you’re ready, we’ll cut and pull up the next section of plastic.”

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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