Escape Pod 865: Spider (Part 2 of 2)

Show Notes

Don’t miss Spider, Part One


Spider (Part 2)

by Patrice Sarath

Nguyen

“Attention. Attention. Stay in your quarters. Attention. Attention. Stay in your quarters.”

The bloody pink light of the station alarm washed over Shane and Ray as they pushed at top speed toward the residential arm. Despite the warning, most of the station population was watching from their doorways, in various stages of ragged middle of the night un-dress, hair floating around fluid-bloated faces.

They encountered the first drifting blood drops as they rounded the corner of the miners’ section. Adrift in the corridor was the body of one of the brothers, barely conscious. Shane reached him first, wrestling the body around so she could run a diagnostic. His face was battered, as if the other brother had tied him to a rail and then kept ramming an oxygen canister at his nose. She fished for his I.D. Rose.

“Where’s Carter, Rose?” She said. His eyes fluttered, but he made no response.

“Where’s medic?” Ray yelled into his mic. “What is taking you guys so long?”

“On our way,” came a voice over the radio.

“Rose? Where’s your brother?”

Rose made a wheezing noise. Laughter. Shane gave him a closer look. There was no way to detect a scar, with his face in ruin. “Carter?” she guessed. Something shifted in his expression and she knew she was right.

“We’re looking for Rose,” she told Ray. “This is Carter.”

Ray shook his head. “Goddamn fifth-grade bullshit,” he said. “Good,” he said, as the medics swooped up with a float and the rest of their kit. They swarmed around Carter and the two cops backed away. “Let’s go find our boy.” His eyes scanned. “Got him. Residential arm in Bravo sector.”

“Let’s make sure that son of a bitch stays put,” Shane said. She keyed her mic. “Station, give us gee plus.”

“Order requires authority,” came the quiet voice of the station computer. Shane looked at Ray.

“Shane, do we have time for this?” Ray asked. “He can do a lot of damage before he’s pinned down.”

“By the time he figures it out, we’ll have him,” she said. “Do it, Ray.” Give me this.

Ray hesitated, gave in. “Station, authorize override per station security.”

“Voice ID confirmed. Override accepted. Order confirmed.”

It took them only a scant few minutes to return to security HQ to get their gear. Even in that brief span, Shane imagined she could feel a heaviness begin to descend on her. Was it her imagination or was there a barely perceptible sense of down?

She and Ray helped each other into their frames, the exoskeletons that allowed them to move in gee. It would take at least a half hour for the wheel to generate enough momentum to build up the centripetal force necessary to keep Rose locked down wherever he was. By the time it did, the only people who would be able to move would be Shane and Ray.

We’re coming for you, Rose.

#

There was more blood in the res corridor in Sector Bravo, outside of Nguyen’s quarters, leaking underneath her door. Without a word Shane and Ray looked at each other, and then activated the door.

“Jesus Christ,” Shane breathed. Blood everywhere. No longer floating droplets, as the spin drew the fluids sideways and down. Most of the blood was on Nguyen, unconscious but breathing. Shane knelt beside her, feeling a heaviness that had nothing to do with the increasing gravity or the weight of her frame.

“Medics,” Ray said into his mic. His voice caught. “We’ve got another one.”

“Was it Rose?” Shane said.

Nguyen nodded. “I let him in.” Her words were barely audible. “Oh my God, I let him in.”

“On our way,” came the voice on the comm.

“Nguyen, why would he do this?” Shane asked.

“He found out I slept with Carter. He told me – he told me, he said I was sick, to cheat on him with his brother.”

“You’re not,” Shane said awkwardly, and Nguyen laughed at the inadequacy of her attempt at solace. She clutched Shane’s frame with bloody fingers.

“Listen — they’re cooking up a scheme. Carter told me. Delacort, Martinez, and Hawkes — they’ve got something going on.” She fell to sobbing again, curled around herself, pressing her hands between her legs.

“Where did Rose go?” Shane said. “Nguyen, do you know where he went?”

“He said he was going to kill Hawkes and the rest of them.”

Shane felt rage rise in her, pure, clean fury. The Goucher twins, running roughshod over the station. Her station.
“Go get Rose,” she told Ray. “But I’m putting an end to this, once and for all.”

“What? Shane, what are you doing?”

Shane stood. The comforting pressure of increasing gee steadied her, gave her resolve, like a warm hand on her shoulder. Ray was asking her something, but she ignored him. She started walking, and then, with the help of the exo frame, she began to run.

#

The news went through the station like wildfire – Rose Goucher had attacked his brother and nearly killed Nguyen. I felt the leaden weight of increasing gee, and my heart compressed with effort, exacerbating my panic. If Rose was on a rampage, I could be next. I struggled out of my sleep sack, casting around for a weapon.

A noise came from the doorway. It was Rose. I think I only had time to widen my eyes when he forced himself through my door, arms splayed. And that was when the wheel achieved gee plus, trapping us like flies in molasses.

Rose strained toward me, his features contorted with effort and rage. I struggled for air, my heart beating hard, working at more than full gee for the first time in years. The klaxon kept on going, the red washing over us. I raised a weak hand, trying to ward off an attack.

The next moment a fizz of electricity sounded and Rose convulsed, going down hard. He hit the floor with a satisfying impact. The cop, Ray, stared at me over his outstretched weapon, the frame of his exo armor bulking him up. Then he knelt and cuffed Rose’s hands behind his back. The twin screamed and struggled, but he stayed down.

“Hawkes,” the cop ordered. “Get dressed and go to the station. Now.”

#

The station cop doffed his armor and stowed it and then turned to me, gesturing to sit. I obeyed, artificial gravity keeping me in place. The door opened, and Asa came in. We looked at each other and looked away. He was impassive as always, but I could see the strain around his eyes.

“Hey Ray,” Asa said. “Can you turn off the gee? My girlfriend’s not feeling too good, and this isn’t helping. She has trouble breathing.”

“Sorry, Ace. It’ll take a while,” Ray said. He looked at me. “Nguyen said you and the twins were cooking up some scheme. I would appreciate it if you would tell me what that is.”

“I have no idea what she’s talking about,” I said.

He sighed, rubbing his eyes. “Yeah. The thing is, Hawkes, this isn’t the first time you’ve been at the nexus of some shady shit. And Nguyen only confirmed what the A.I. already told us. So why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” He had the distant look of a man accessing his corneal implant, then re-focused on me.

I didn’t say anything. Ray looked at Asa. “Is this about Evangeline?”

Asa shrugged. “Ray, let this one go.”

“I would love to, Ace. Really. But see, Nguyen is a good kid. Everybody likes her, she organizes the Scrabble tournament and the karaoke, and she’s good at her job. Yeah, she’s into the bad boys, but who isn’t? She got hurt. And she says you guys are involved somehow. There’s a lot of blood on this station, and if I let this go, I have a bigger problem then you two.”

“Arrest the twins. Rose is the one who did this,” Asa said.

Ray’s voice was as flat as Asa’s. “You know that’s not an option.”

“It’s not like it matters, Ray. It’s not like you have anyone to report to. Just let it go, man.”

“What are you two up to?” Ray persisted. “Does this have to do with Evangeline being sick? How are you all connected?”

Asa’s face never changed, but he exhaled slow, as if it were too much to hold. “We’re stealing a rock,” he said.

I forced a laugh. “He’s crazy, officer. Don’t listen to him.”

They ignored me.

“Who’s the buyer?”

“We don’t know.”

Ray looked at us for a long time, the ugly fluorescent ghoulishly lights illuminating his face. “You fucking idiots,” he said after a moment. “Do you know who you’re going up against? Do you think the company is going to let a bunch of goddamn space monkeys steal a fucking rock? You think you can just sit down and steal an entire asteroid out from under the Bifrost Corporation and they aren’t going to notice?!” He was screaming now, slamming his fists down onto the table. I flinched with each blow.

In the tumult no one noticed that console alarms had been going off for a while until Asa turned to look at the flashing blue light. Ray’s tantrum broke abruptly. “What?” he snapped.

“Unauthorized shuttle launch,” came the pleasant voice of the A.I. “Evangeline Martinez has bypassed protocol to take Shuttle B-167 out of dock.”

#

AI

Shane climbed down the vertical tube to the control room suspended under the station superstructure, shoulders touching the sides of the tube. The rungs extended below her, the tracklights gleaming off the metal passageway with simulated daylight. In normal zero gee she would have zipped along headfirst, her brain orienting her to think she was going up. In gee plus, she went feet first.

The central nervous system of the station was a huge globe that was suspended beneath the arms. The spider sat in the center of the web. Shane climbed, not thinking about how she was going to get back, not thinking about how she looked like a tiny fly crawling along a centerline of silk with a giant spider at the center.

Her mag boots clanged against each rung until she stepped down onto the top of the globe, the airlock at her feet like a watching eye. Even with the help of the frame, she was wheezing by the time she made it. Shane collapsed onto her knees, pulling air into her lungs until finally her heart slowed and her breathing became normal. She slapped at the airlock controls, and the door irised open.

#

“Hello?” Shane called out, wondering where everyone was. The globe was empty, but there was the hum of machinery and electronics. There was a faint breeze and the smell of organic material, part of the station’s power plant. It was incongruous, the smell of shit in this antiseptic place. The globe was lit with UV lighting, but there were no desks or chairs. Just blank walls and floors, in a polished curve of metal, the same color as the floor. The hum came from within the walls; she stood inside the computer system that ran the station. “Hello?” she called again, feeling absurd. Where were the station officials? Where was admin?

A signal came across her contact lens receiver. “Officer Harris,” came a pleasant male voice, vibrating slightly in her temple. “Why are you here?”

“Who is this?” Shane said, trying to control the slight shake in her voice. “Where are you?”

“I am the A.I. of Bifrost mining station. I am all around you, everywhere on this station. You might say, I am in your head.”

There was the faintest ghost of a laugh, and something flickered behind her eye.

“I need to talk to the people. To admin. The station officials. Where are they?”

“They are not here. Why are you here?”

“I’m here because I need to understand.” The A.I. was silent, so Shane pushed on. “Who is protecting the Goucher twins? What is the scheme they’ve got going?”

“That information is reserved for admin.”

Shane wanted to scream. “Answer me! Why can’t I arrest Rose?”

“That is up to admin to decide.”

“Fine. Let me talk to admin.”

“Admin is not here.”

“Yeah, I got that. Where is admin?”

“Admin is not here.”

Shane rolled her eyes. “Is admin on the toilet?” she said, deeply sarcastic. The A.I. did not answer. Somehow, that angered her more than ever. “Is admin on the fucking station?” she shouted.

“Admin is not on the fucking station.”

Shane found she had nothing to say. Her legs collapsed, and she sat down in the center of the globe, in the middle of the floor. Abandoned. They abandoned us, left us out here. We’re all alone. She folded over, touching her forehead to her knees. Her pulse throbbed, and she made to dose herself, then thought: No. God help her, her heart felt as if it would pound right out of her chest, but she needed to understand. If ever a time there was to be anxious, she thought with asperity, this would be it. She pushed to her feet, shading her eyes against the lights.

“If admin is not on the station, and admin is not here, where is admin?”

The A.I. was silent.

“Are you admin?” Shane remembered arriving, over a year ago now, disembarking from the supply ship that had carried her from Earth to Bifrost in just over eight months. She met Ray, shook his hand, was welcomed on board. She filled out forms. She had not met any station officials or any corporate executives. I just assumed…

“I am not admin.”

“Are Carter and Rose admin?”

“Carter and Rose are not admin.”

“What are they? Why can’t they be arrested?”

“They are enforcement.”

“Ray and I are enforcement,” Shane corrected. “What are Carter and Rose?”

“They are enforcement.”

“No,” Shane said. “Carter and Rose are violent criminals.”

The A.I. was silent.

“When did admin leave?”

The A.I. was silent, then cued up video of a ship leaving the station docking arm. The ship was the Gagarin-Tereshkova, a plasma-drive cruise class behemoth that could make the journey from Earth to Bifrost in a blazing six months. The date stamp was 2060, three years before Shane arrived.

Shane sighed, bone weary. Her temples throbbed. The gleaming daylights were painful even on her eyelids. There was so much UV she fancied she could feel the chemical production of Vitamin D on her skin, tingling on her bare arm.

Shane’s eyes snapped open. She looked down at her arm, at a tiny artificial spider crawling along her skin. Shane turned her hand, feeling something akin to wonder combined with atavistic, visceral disgust.

“Did you make this?” she asked the A.I.

“Yes,” said the A.I.

“What does it do?”

“It creates a direct connection between station administration and my central operating system.”

“But admin have all left,” Shane said. “Did they — did they connect with you before they left?”

“No. They did not connect.”

“Is this why they left?”

“I do not know their reasons for leaving.”

“Surmise, then. Guess. Just like you guessed about the name Agnes St. Germaine.”

“This is why they left.”

Shane nodded. She got that. She really did. Running the station with the A.I. inside your head — that was a deal that the executives of Bifrost Mining Corporation, registered Corporate Citizen Entity, had not signed up for. So they left the A.I. to run the station, with nominal oversight by two cops and two brutal miners to keep the peace.

The tiny machine crawled to the edge of her hand and Shane flipped her palm. With a sudden catch, the creature hung suspended by a gleaming line of filament. She gasped. It worked its way back up to her hand. Shane kept turning her hand, allowing the creature to crawl over and over on the same track, from the side of her hand, over her palm, and between her fingers.

“Who is Agnes St. Germaine?” she asked, while she played with the mechanical spider.

“That information is reserved for admin,” the A.I. said. “Would you like to be admin, Shane Harris?”

Did she want to be admin? To not just have access to the server, but to have the A.I. in her head? To have the answers to all her questions?

To be the spider at the center of the station?

She licked her lips, trying to figure out how to ask the question. “Do you know about me?”

Do you know how close I am to system failure?

“I know about you, Shane Harris.”

Was it her imagination, or was the A.I.’s voice kind?

Shane didn’t say anything. She just lifted her hand and let the spider do the rest.

#

Evangeline

The turning wheel wound down to stillness as the gravity lockdown was nullified. Ray, Asa, and I hustled to the shuttle dock, taking giant, disorienting leaps as null-gee was restored. The shuttle bay was locked, and the crew was buzzing in the control room, working the computers to gain access. Evangeline had not been playing around.

Ray’s eyes flickered. “Status?” he said to Control.

Control shook his head, strain around his eyes. “Yeah, she nailed the system good. A localized virus — the control room is separate from the rest of the station for just this reason. We think she got in using a virus on an old thumb drive.”

I opened my mouth to say something and found I had nothing to say. Asa’s thumb drive with the initial coordinates for the rock — from Evangeline’s computer — had carried the virus. Even then Evangeline was planning her big day. And I was the fool who got her in.

“Where’s she going?” Ray said, leaning over Control’s back and looking at the console.

“We think she’s heading toward this rock,” Control said. Asa bent over the console, his long fingers flickering over the touchscreen. We gathered around, and there it was in beautiful grayscale, a lovely, large, M Class asteroid with a long serial number beside it, even bigger than the one we sent to the buyer. Of course. Evangeline was the best spotter on the station. But what was she doing with this rock?

What did a dying woman want with her share of five hundred million dollars?

“Twelve hours out,” Control said. He played over the touchscreen, and brought up the shuttle, a tiny flickering triangle inching its way toward the target. “Yeah, she’s heading there. But where is she going to push it?”

I think they all saw the answer in my stricken expression. “Here,” I breathed. Evangeline was going to smash the asteroid into the station.


#

It was simple enough. Set the rocket bots with a preprogrammed charge. They would steer the asteroid toward the station, while the station continued its path through the asteroid field, until the deadly rendezvous, calculated to be about a month hence. We could divert the station but diverting the station had a cascade of implications. Divert the station, and we would use up ungodly amount of fuel, which meant that we would be at a deficit for normal operations. Then the supply ships would have to expend their fuel accordingly to make a new rendezvous point. Divert the station — and the extensively calculated route through the asteroid field would have to be recalculated, at great expense. The corporation would go bankrupt. Would they try to salvage their investment or rescue the crew?

I had a sudden, vivid image of the spider sailing off beyond Jupiter with one thousand dead miners on board.

Evangeline Martinez was going out with a bang, and she was taking the Corporation – and the rest of us — with her.

#

I felt the nudge as the docking catch released, and we slid from the shuttle bay. The stars blazed eternal, and Jupiter hung somewhere off my shoulder. I shifted the viewscreen to Bifrost, now below and behind me, and it hung there, bright, illuminated, the great curve of the wheel rising above the bulbous station core and giving it its name. Bifrost, the bridge to the gods.

It took the cutting team about six hours to get through the door into the shuttle bay. I was about half a day behind Evangeline and wouldn’t be able to catch her, but I was closer to the rock than she was, now that she had set her rockets to move it our way. While her plan was to unleash the power of her rocket bots to move the asteroid to intercept the station, adding my own bots would boost the asteroid even more. By the time the station traveled along its pre-ordained path, the asteroid would have already moved on, into the black.

The proximity sensor pinged, jerking me out of my reverie.

Control’s voice came over the mic. “B-132, was that a ping?”

“Affirmative. Visual shows nothing.” Then another ping and the computer voice. “Danger. Debris in red zone.”
 “Hawkes?” Control said, chucking protocol.

“Just a minute, Control.” I tapped commands into the console, orienting the cameras to look for the debris. The cameras activated the viewscreen.

Evangeline. Her eyes were open and she looked straight at me, before she grew small and then smaller, disappearing into the distance. The void had called, and Evangeline had answered. She’d drift forever now, just another object in the belt. Immortality for a dead woman.

From the silence over the comm, I knew that the control room had seen what I had seen. I did some rough calculations, then oriented the viewscreen where I expected to see her shuttle. There it was, on a course coming back, and it was coming in fast.

I am not particularly quick. It took me long seconds to understand the implications. When I did, I cued the comm and sent them my findings.

“Control,” I said, “We have another problem.”

There was a silence, then, a flurry of voices, all against station protocol. I heard Control yell, “Quiet!” and then he said, “B-132, turn around. Make a course for the station. We’ll need you to intercept.”

#

I flew under a constant burn, running calculations until I knew to a second how much time I had. Evangeline’s shuttle was a steadily pulsing blip on my screen, and mine was rocketing toward it, closing the gap. No matter how many times I ran it through, it was going to be too close. We might avoid the collision with the asteroid, but we’d be hard pressed to evade a shuttle programmed for the station center.

As the hours crept along, I listened on the comm as Bifrost personnel evacuated the arm and began the process of uncoupling the substructure. Frozen couplings, badly maintained controls — all of it thwarted the best efforts of the engineers to cut the damn thing loose.

“Come on you guys, come on,” I said in my lonely cockpit. Control never answered. I think they all knew that I was exhorting them, not judging.

Finally, the familiar structure hove into view — blinking lights and blank spaces where structure blocked out the stars. And there, coming in fast, was Evangeline’s shuttle.

“Guys, I’ve got eyes on B-167,” I said. “Getting in my suit and letting her rip.”

“Godspeed, Hawkes,” said Control.

“Yeah. Thanks.”

I doublechecked my course, got into my suit, ran through the safeties, and then entered the airlock.

Suited or not, no one had ever exited a shuttle going at this speed. I ran over in my head what I needed to do. I programmed the suit rockets and gyros to stabilize me after exit, but there was no saying they would be able to work at this velocity. I would probably be torn apart. If I weren’t, I would be flung far away from the station and they would never find me, and I would die in space.

“Fuck you, Evangeline Martinez,” I said, and hit the button.

#

When I regained consciousness I was rotating wildly, my helmet filled with blood and bile, the suit cleaners doing their best to suck away the liquid. I couldn’t see much so I closed my eyes again, tried not to throw up any more, my eyes tearing from the pain. But I was alive, and with every spin, I slowed, until the rockets and stabilizers finally got control, and my spin became gentle. Every breath brought sharp pain to my side. My nose, broken and swollen, pressed against my faceplate.

But the suit held. I had oxygen, pressure, rockets, and stabilizers. I could see the flashing of my suit’s automated beacon across my faceplate, the radio wave signal narrowcasting my position to the station, and receiving another signal in response from Bifrost. I was twenty-five kilometers out, and my automated finder aligned itself along the signal, the rockets pushing me toward home.

None of it was good enough; I had a spectacular view of my failure. I floated off the shoulder of the station, a tiny pinpoint of organic material among the stars, as my shuttle slid into Evangeline’s, just as it hit the shuttle arm, increasing the intensity of the impact. I closed my eyes but I couldn’t turn away as the explosion washed across my faceplate.
#

Bifrost Mining Station, 2065
Spider

Five more people died in the collision and explosion including Asa and Ray, and the station lost months of productivity, with a conflicting flurry of orders from corporate. Rebuild finally started — grudgingly, Shane thought, as she half-expected Bifrost Corporation to cut its losses and let the station go. Instead, corporate named her Station Head, and told her to fix everything.

Shane watched from Admin Control as the supply ship Hohmann slid away from the station, carrying three passengers — Hawkes and the Goucher twins. She had let them go. In a few months they’d rendezvous with InterSol authorities. She was rid of the brother miners at last.

The A.I. was in her head, and the data streaming to her corneal display was a constant murmur of intelligence. The spider nestled just inside the bone over her left ear where it could most easily transmit. Its presence had the added benefit of stabilizing her inner ear, providing the governor that she had been missing for so long. After long years of panic and shame, Shane Harris was finally at peace.

Beside her, Ray flickered, a faithful hologram, restored from years of recorded data of his life on board the station. “Did you ever find out who Agnes St. Germaine is?” Ray said, and Shane smiled, because it was exactly something that Ray would say. Everyone on Bifrost had something they were running from, except for Ray. He was always meant to be here.

“Yeah,” she said. “Turns out your program knew what it was doing all the time.”

Agnes St. Germaine — one of many aliases of the mystery buyer based on Mars, who was even now making the same rendezvous with Hawkes, the Goucher twins, and InterSol.

It was still a delight, finding out how the A.I. worked with Ray’s program. It took the code and made it predictive, intuitive; it plotted intersecting trajectories of people who didn’t even know they were on a collision course. There were ten billion people in the solar system and the A.I. used all that data to map where they were going to be, spinning filaments of connections between each one, shining lines of data that pulsed with each connect and disconnect. It was beautiful, and it was Shane’s.

She was admin. She was home.


Host Commentary

Previously in Spider, Part One:
Bifrost Mining Station floats in the asteroid field beyond Mars, and it’s occupied by miners, crooks, and personnel, all of whom are escaping from something. But as the violent Goucher Twins find people to help them pull of a heist, and the cops Shane and Ray attempt to stop them, the questions rise of why they can’t just arrest the Goucher twins, and what is driving the station Ai, and while most everyone on the station is getting away from something, what is aboard the station to that people want to escape?

Now get settled because the gravity is ramping up. It’s storytime.

About the story, the author has this to say: This story is a prequel of sorts to my short story, “Murder on the Hohmann” (published in Futuristica in 2016). It took on a life of its own when the characters came marching in demanding to tell their side of the story. I didn’t know that I’d be meeting Shane, Evangeline, and Asa when I sat down to write this. But I’m really glad I did.

I think stories like that feed the love of westerns for people who don’t like westerns. Taking a motley group of folks and putting them far from civilized areas, and having them deal with crap when they know that no one is coming to save them, that kind of story speaks to a lot of people. When there’s a force at work that people can’t identify, those make for the most perplexing stories, as the reader really feels for the characters. The issues of mental health touched on in this story aren’t often brought up in fiction, when they are all too common in our real life. But a story where two broken people, even if one is an AI, find each other to become stronger, is always a good read for me. Sometimes stories that you think are about people running away from something end up being about them running toward something else.

Our quote is from They Might Be Giants, and their song Spider: Spider: We love you spider. Spider. Get Rid of. Spider: Must stop. Spider: He is our hero.

About the Author

Patrice Sarath

Patrice Sarath

Patrice Sarath is an author and editor living in Austin, Texas. Her novels include the fantasy books The Sisters Mederos and Fog Season (Books I and II of the Tales of Port Saint Frey), the Books of the Gordath (Gordath Wood, Red Gold Bridge, and The Crow God’s Girl) and the romance The Unexpected Miss Bennet. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Weird Tales, and Year’s Best Fantasy.

To find out more about Patrice Sarath’s novels and short fiction, visit her website, where she blogs about fantasy, science fiction, movies (including the ones she’s made), and Jane Austen. Please stop by and saw hi.

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About the Narrator

Tatiana Grey

Tatiana Grey is a critically acclaimed actress of stage, screen, and the audio booth.  She has been nominated for dozens of fancy awards but hasn’t won a single damned thing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.  See more about Tatiana at www.tatianagrey.com.

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