The Road to the Stars - Chapter Twenty-Six

Talk about timing.

I've never been happy about killing.

Well. Maybe a couple times.

I've never enjoyed it. Let's put it that way.

But there are times when it's damn satisfying.

And what happened to the Brahe was as satisfying as most anything else in my life.

Fuckers deserved it.


Chapter Twenty Six


Enterprise, Diana. SAR complete?”

Diana, Enterprise. SAR complete. All survivors and remains recovered. Returning to base with Wolves.”

Kendra had ordered the two fleeing Wolves, Newton and Brahmagupta, to join Yang and Hawking in recovery operations. Then, as soon as Kendra had convinced Alley that Diana was in no immediate danger from the damage she’d taken, she’d ordered Enterprise to join.

“Your sensors are more sensitive, and could make the difference between finding a survivor and recovering a body,” she’d explained, when Alley had balked. She had been right; being able to read life signs from within a suit which was no longer transmitting had saved at least five people. This was on Alley’s mind as she continued her report.

“Total of twenty-six survivors, twenty-two from the Gordon.”

“Only four of ours?” said Kendra, her voice strained.

“Yes, Admiral. Survivors are from the Copernicus, Bohr, and Carver.”

“Mia?”

“No. The Galileo is simply gone, Kendra. We could barely recover enough of her structure from the debris field to identify the ship itself.”

“Bring them home, Alley. Then we start figuring out next steps.”

“Aye, Admiral.”

*

One of the survivors from the Gordon was Lieutenant Huff. Kendra was rather short with him.

“Don’t get any stupid ideas. All I need is an excuse and I’ll send you back to Luna, economy, by pushing you out an airlock.”

Huff, wisely, said nothing.

“We never expected to take prisoners, so you’re going to be shipped groundside as soon as we have transportation. Until then, behave.”

“Groundside? Admiral, most of us have never been to Earth. The gravity will kill us! We can barely manage this!” He gestured around. They were in a vacant shuttle bay, Kendra having neither the time nor interest to find any other accommodations.

“And I care why?” Then she relented, gathering herself. “I’ll see if I can arrange something for your temporary stay here. Earthside, you’ll have to manage, until your government asks for you back.”

Huff snorted. “They won’t ask for us back. We failed. The Families don’t reward failure well.”

“Wait. What did you say?”

“The Families don’t reward failure well?”

“You’re familiar with the politics of Artemis?”

“Of course.”

“Maybe we can work something out. Diana.”

“Yes, Admiral?” replied the AI.

“Can you reduce the gravity in bay four to Luna normal?”

“I can do that, Admiral.”

“Make it so, after I exit the bay. Keep an eye on these people, don’t let them out, but let Kyran or one of her staff know if they need anything.”

“Understood, Admiral.”

Kendra turned back to Huff. “We’ll see what we can do,” she repeated. “But having the gravity reduced is a start.”

“Thank you, Admiral Cassidy.”

Kendra nodded then walked away, already comming Montana.

Cris?

What can I do for you, Kendra?

Your Personnel Researcher, Stephanie. What does she need to do her job?

Just a bit of equipment and time. Why?

And she can do gentle? Just confirm information without damaging the person?

Probably. Not much call for that, though. Why?

Get her up to Diana as soon as you can, Kendra non-answered. I’ve got work for her.

Got it, boss.

She felt a twinge as she threw herself back into her work, a hint of guilt that she wasn’t grieving for her dead, but she repressed it. Time enough to mourn later. Now is for the living, for their ohana, and to make their deaths mean something.

*

“What went wrong?”

Nicole was understandably nervous, appearing at the Council of Ministers after an operation, her operation, failed spectacularly. The Primus’ voice was mild, though, even kind, and that made her even more wary.

“Primus, we don’t fully understand, yet.” She hastily added the last word. “Minister Dent is seeking information, as well as our own Office of Naval Intelligence, but there simply isn’t anything to go on yet.”

“Nothing? I find that hard to believe,” she practically purred.

“Primus, there is information, but it makes no sense. Neither the Ministry of Intelligence nor ONI have been able to put anything sensible together. I can summarize what we know, based on the transmissions we picked up between the ships and the data we were able to glean from sensor records.”

“Proceed.”

“Mr. Taylor, will you call up the files? Thank you.” She had brought both Cox and Taylor to the meeting, the former because he expected to be brought, the latter for actual support. When the display showed the tactical display of the battlespace, she began. “According to our plan, five AN ships, led by the ANS Armstrong, and supported by the SUNS Brahe, departed cislunar space…”

Fifteen minutes later, she finished with, “We have been keeping the habitat under observation, but they destroyed all of the satellites we had placed for that purpose. Our ability to monitor their activities is thus greatly diminished.”

“And do we know how the Brahe was destroyed?”

“No, Primus. We do not. We believe,” she nodded at Dent, who nodded back. “That the Enterprise used its laser, given the distances involved, but we have not yet confirmed it.”

“Obviously, the starship is even more dangerous than we had anticipated,” said Newling. “And just as obviously, our attempts to behead the snake failed completely.”

Nicole said nothing; she had been the one to calculate the KEW strike that had destroyed a quarter of the groundside city, and didn’t wish to bring that back to her attention.

“I must admit that I am disappointed in the performance of our Navy, and the Union Navy. I can’t honestly blame you for that, however, being in your position for, what, ten days?”

“Twelve, Primus.”

“I can blame your Underminister of the Navy, however. See to it that he is executed for his failures.” Cox looked at his distant cousin, aghast and shocked.

Sensing that this was not a time to show hesitancy, Nicole simply said, “Primus, might I use your armsmen?”

“Certainly.”

Nicole gestured to two likely-looking retainers. “Remove him, please, and see to it that he stops breathing. Do it quickly.” They grabbed him and pulled him away.

The Primus nodded. “I respect your willingness to do what is required, Minister. Be assured, however, that I am also willing to do what is required. I believe we have an understanding.”

“Yes, Primus.”

“Good. I expect you to work on the problem of this Terran Federation tirelessly. Report your progress to me in a Lunar.”

“Yes, Primus.”

“And you as well, Dent. She will require the best, most complete, information your Ministry can provide.”

“Of course, Primus.”

“Foreign Minister.”

“Primus?”

“I want you to open a dialogue with this Terran Federation. Discuss this unfortunate incident. Assure them that it was the unsanctioned actions of rogue, overzealous personnel within the two navies who erred in their interpretation of the new exclusion statute. Lie, in other words. You’re good at that.”

“I shall, Primus, but to what end?”

“To stall for time. Draw it out as long as possible, give as little ground as you can, but don’t let them stop talking. Minister Newling.”

“Yes, Primus?”

“You need to encourage your staff at the Ministry to improve their efforts. We need to equal this Enterprise. If we cannot capture it, we need one of our own. Minister Pitt.”

“How may I serve?”

Ignoring the veiled sarcasm, Newling said, “You will accompany Minister Dent during his negotiations with the Federation. Accede to any monetary demands they might make; we’ll simply extract it from the Guild, and the UE. If we can buy them off, even temporarily, we will give Minister Crozier more time.”

She gazed around the room. “Is everyone clear? Then go. This meeting is finished.”

*

“Cris.”

“Kendra. I wanted to let you know that I heard from one of my peers.”

“Oh?”

“Regarding getting some HumInt from Artemis?”

“Oh, right! Good!”

“Very good, actually. She has an agent in Artemis City, very deep cover, an immigrant from one of the other Union members. She didn’t want to give me too many details.”

“Understandable.”

“Apparently, this agent’s information has always checked out, and she’s willing to share with us.”

“That is good. Can we ask for specific bits?”

“Probably not, at least not at first. Let’s see what develops. And I’m still working on putting together a stacked tour of Artemis City, but that’s going to take some time.”

“I trust you, Cris. I know that you’ll get it done. If you can have something roughed out, Cass and I will be down next week.”

“I didn’t know you planned to return?”

“For the funerals.”

“Ah. Kendra, I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

“Someone once told me that all I can do is give my people a goal to believe in and the tools to achieve it. ‘Give them a good death’, she said.” She paused briefly. “They died a good death, Cris. After we talked last time, I did a lot of thinking, and little bit of reading. I wanted to see how other leaders handled death, death on the wholesale scale, not retail like I’m used to dealing with. Have you ever heard of Abraham Lincoln?”

Cris searched her memory but came up blank. “No. The name is maybe familiar? But I couldn’t tell you who he was.”

“He was the President of the United States during the First Civil War. There was one speech he gave, after a particularly bloody battle, which seemed to speak to me. It seemed to reach across the centuries, like he wrote it just for us, for now.” She closed her eyes. Then, voice husky with emotion, she recited. “’It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.’” She stopped, again, and calmed herself.

“That’s us, now, Cris, ‘the great task remaining before us’. They gave that last full measure of devotion, and we will not, I will not, let their deaths be in vain.”

“Mia. Madman. Handles. Loose Wire. Mouse. Bobble. All of them. Their deaths will not be in vain.”

Cris didn’t say anything, but nodded slowly.

“We’ll be down in a week. Out.”

*

Every city has its underbelly. There is always a place for the least-fortunate to go, to hide from the bright lights and scrutiny of the lucky. Artemis City was no exception.

In the tunnels far below most of the inhabited cubic, down in the maze of compartments and caverns that provided the environmental support to the upper city, a mirror-image city lived. The government was aware of it, of course; how could it not, with cameras and monitors and regular maintenance patrols? But for the most part, they ignored it. Part of that was simple laziness: it would take a prolonged, concentrated effort to fully purge the lower levels of all the unauthorized inhabitants. Part was pragmatism: if the ‘good citizens’ of the upper city ever needed evidence of the government rooting out crime, they could enter the depths, pluck a half-dozen unfortunates, and summarily execute them for whatever charges they wished to apply. And part was cynical need: the undercity provided a permanent pool of people willing, even eager, to be enticed into committing crimes against targeted citizens. Those citizens were chosen for suspected disloyalty, or for the sin of being related to the wrong family, or any other politically expedient reason.

In the undercity, there was a black market, of course. Anything was available there, from the basic necessities, to weaponry, to information. It was that latter that the woman with the rather-too-erect stature sought, and what brought the broker over to her.

“Bend over.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You walk too straight, too perfectly. You need to stoop. People down here, they don’t want to be noticed. Walk like that, you’ll get noticed.”

She bent slightly. “Better?”

“Not much. We’ll work on it. I hear you’re looking for some information.”

“I might be. Who are you?”

“The person you want to find. Come with me and we’ll talk.”

She considered this. He was shorter, but he was walking as he advocated, hunched down, legs bent; she estimated him to be her height, maybe more. Still, she had training he probably didn’t.

“I’ll follow you. What’s your name?”

“For you? Call me Marc. You?”

“I’m not sure I should,” she said.

“Uh-uh,” he grunted. “A name for a name. After all, I deal in information.”

“Fine. You can call me Davie.”

*

“Yes, Archie?”

Kendra didn’t need this right now. Really and truly, she didn’t. But Archie Leach was her lawyer, had been for several years, and he was paid excellent money to help her and Cass manage the Harriman Trust. She supposed that if he took the time to comm her she should take the time to listen to him.

“I’ve been looking over the draft accounts,” he started.

“Don’t we have accountants to do that? Make sure all the checkbooks balance?”

“We do. They’ve also been instructed to inform me whenever they’re directed to authorized unusual expenditures.”

“Define unusual, and who instructed them?”

“Unusual in amount or destination, and I was the one who laid on their instructions. It is merely part of my fiduciary duty.”

Kendra knew that when Leach started lapsing into lawyer-speak with terms like ‘fiduciary’ that she’d run into a hard limit and it was time to simply move on.

“And?”

“Ms. Kendra,” he said; he had arrived at that appellation when he refused to call them by their bare first names, but also refused to refer to them both as ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’ Cassidy. “In the past two weeks, there has been nearly a half-trillion credits paid out or contractually obligated to various material suppliers and construction companies, ordered by a Diana No Last Name, per you, Ms. Kendra.”

“Ah.”

“And there are huge quantities of lift space booked on HLC, again by the same Diana.”

“Yes, well…”

“And this doesn’t begin to get into the billing to your personal accounts from CusslerNautics, which was then reimbursed by the Distribution Directorate of the United Earth. I realize that is owned by the Trust, but moving money from the Trust through a Trust property will look most suspicious to revenue examiners, completely leaving out any involvement by the UE.”

“If you’ll look…”

“It is all most irregular, Ms. Kendra.”

“Archie!”

“Yes, Ms. Kendra?” If he was annoyed by being addressed by his first name, and she knew that it did, he concealed it well.

“Let me ask you this. What is the overall value of the Trust?”

“Ms. Kendra.” His tone was that of a long-suffering teacher dealing with a particularly difficult student, one who refused to learn. “As I’ve told you, that is a highly fluid and difficult-to-answer question, as there are a great number of factors which –“

“Apply at any one time, relative values, currency exchange, hard assets, soft assets, liquid assets, blah, blah, blah. Assume I know all that. Assume that I know the answer, as well.”

His voice was somewhat strangled as he asked, “Then why would you ask me?”

“Because I want you to know the answer. Find it, Archie. I’ll wait.”

For all his complaining and griping, Leach was as skilled at information retrieval as he was at asset management, and he returned to the connection in very little time.

“Somewhat in excess of sixty-four trillion credits? I find that difficult to believe, but I am certain that I have sought the correct information.”

“You’ve got it right, Archie.”

“How is that possible?”

“You don’t want me to answer that, Archie. Nothing illegal, just some extremely specific directives. Now. Going forward, there are going to be a growing number of purchases and drafts drawn by Diana; I am telling you now that she is fully authorized to do so. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Ms. Kendra, but…”

“My turn to talk. There are going to be more payments going from my personal account to HLC, and reimbursements coming from the UE again. I don’t need you to report this to me.”

“Yes, Ms. Kendra.”

He sounded somewhat exasperated, so perhaps it was time for some verbal balm. “Archie, you’re doing a great job, and we appreciate how much of the burden of the Trust’s management you’ve taken on. It’s allowed us to concentrate on projects that stand to make a huge difference to millions of people. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Ms. Kendra. I have largely enjoyed my time in your service; it’s always a worry with clients as, ah, I suppose I can say ‘driven’, as you and Ms. Aiyana are, that you may lose focus on the more mundane aspects of finances.”

“Which is exactly why we trust you to do what you do.”

“Very well, Ms. Kendra. Shall I send you a summary on a weekly basis of transactions I find interesting?”

“Make it bi-weekly. Anything in excess of a trillion, you can send same day.”

“Do you anticipate many of those, Ms. Kendra?” he asked with some trepidation.

“Hey, you never know. I’ve got to dash, Archie. Love to Wanda.”

“Thank you, Ms. Kendra.”

*

“Thank you all for coming. I know it was difficult to find time in all of our schedules, but I felt it important that we meet.”

Kendra was addressing her staff again, and she looked around the sea of familiar faces: Cass. Kyran. Mikki. Alley. Candice. Mac. Val. Ted. New faces, too: Kiri. Audrey. Horst. Shannon. Virtual presences: Cris. Kim, from HLC. Lisa. Diana. Harpo. Minerva, though she insisted on being called ‘Minna’ now.

“First, this is not about assigning blame. We are here to discuss our response to the events of last week, not point fingers. So, to that end, let’s start with HLC.” She faced Kim’s hologram. “How is the production of Wolves coming?”

“As you know, we had three nearly completed: Meitner, Leavitt, and Hubble. Those have been finished and are awaiting testing before we turn them over. Boeing is being a pain, but I think I’ll be able to shake them into increasing production.”

Kendra nodded. “Good. Lieutenant Fowler?”

The former Coxswain, the senior surviving member of the Wolfpack and the new commander, looked up. “Yes, Admiral?”

“I need you to take your most experienced CM’s groundside and get those birds certified. We need to build our squadron strength back up.”

“Yes, ma’am, I understand, but I’m having a problem with manning the birds. We don’t have enough personnel.”

“Mia, I mean Commander Kleve, was running a training school. I’m afraid that’s going to have to be your baby now, too.” She thought for a moment, then turned to Kim. “HLC has pilots, right?”

“Yes?” answered the acting CEO, a question in her voice.

“You have a training program for them?”

“Yes,” she answered again, more certainly.

“Shannon, talk with Kim. See what you can do to integrate Mia’s plans and techniques for training into HLC’s program, then turn it over to them to execute. Kim, I also need you to increase production of the Wolves.”

“Yes, Admiral. I’ll see what we can do.”

“Val.”

The scientist seemed surprised to be called on. “Yes?”

“I need your design genius. I want to put a sublight engine, fusion plant, and lasers into a single-person ship. I’m thinking you can go light on the life support, maybe even omit it, and let them fly in suits. Inertial dampers, but no gravity. Can you do that?”

“You’re asking for a space fighter,” said Val. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes. Something like one of these.” She put a pair of images on the screen. Both craft were sleek and obviously single-person. One had a long nose, a cockpit, three engines mounted in a triangle, stubby winglets angled diagonally from the bottom engines, and a short tail over the top engine. The other had twin noses, with a cockpit set just back between them, a wide, flattened body, two engines, a pair of short delta wings and another pair of winglets set into the underside.

“You’re insane. Absolutely certifiable. You know that, right?”

“Irrelevant. Can you do it?”

“Um. The power plant, the drive, the compensator, probably. The tricky part is the laser, getting enough bang for the energy penalty.”

Stewart spoke up. “Admiral?”

“Yes, XO?”

“My wife, Lorelei? She works on the laser on Enterprise, and that was her specialty before. Cass, too, is a laser expert. I’m sure if we put the three of them together, they’d come up with a solution.”

“Val? You up for visitors?”

“If I can borrow an AI to help.”

“About that. Before all this started happening, I was in negotiations with CalTech.”

“Oh?” Technically, CalTech owned JPL and the facilities that Val used for her experiments; Kendra had assumed the lease when she inherited the Trust.

“Yes. They’d been making noises about wanting your space back, or a piece of anything you developed there. Something about intellectual property and location, I didn’t really listen. But since we’re building a new habitat, and you’re already spending plenty of time on Diana, I simply made sure you had space aboard that, more space and more equipment than you have now.”

“That’s very generous, Kendra, thank you.”

“Well, since I was already setting you up for a better space, I figured I’d see what concessions I could wrangle, since your lease there is for fourteen more years, and that’s a pretty pile of change they’d be losing. In the end, I managed to get them to agree to sell me a Beta class AI for what they would have collected for rent for the next seven years.”

“Beta’s are pretty capable,” said Mac. “Not as powerful or as quick or independent as an Alpha, but that’s only really noticeable to someone who’s an expert, or another AI, or if they have to do real extreme multitasking, but if it’s just a few things they’re perfectly fine, no offense guys.” The three AI’s present, all of whom were used to Mac, merely said the appropriate verbal placeholders.

“So what I planned to do was install this AI in your new digs. I figure maybe Prometheus would be an appropriate, since its primary task will be to be your assistant for all the grunt work you don’t need to do. I can have it installed temporarily in JPL, and you can unbox it and get it running. Work?”

“Sounds good to me. An AI would be very helpful with the more complicated equations and calculations.”

“Consider it done. Shannon, sorry, something else for your plate. You’ll want to coordinate with Val, Dr. Roberts, on this design. She’s a genuine genius, but you’ve flown in combat. I think you can each benefit from the other’s expertise.”

“Aye-aye, Admiral.”

“Val, this goes to the front of your priorities. Get Dellin to step in on the build of Endeavour for you. She can get you there by telepresence, if you’re on Earth, which you’re going to have to be most of the time.”

“I thought you wanted as many people on Diana as possible?” asked Val.

“That was before. Now, knowing what we know about their methods, and having Enterprise available for intercepts, I feel more confident about you being on Earth. Audrey, that brings me to you.”

“Yes, Ms. Cassidy?”

“We need to protect everybody here, their families, their primary locations. You’re going to be our eyes on the ground, as it were. Hire whomever you need, subcontract, get recommendations from Cris and the Chief. Fill your roster, then fill it some more. When you think you have enough, keep going. Understand?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Chief.”

“Ma’am?”

“No way. Nope. You are not calling me ma’am, as long as the girls call you Auntie Mikki. Try again.”

“Kendra.”

“Better. What I need you to do is take care of the girls. I know that they’re safest with you around.”

“I’ll do ye proud, Kendra.”

“Kyran. Horst. Diana. The three of you are tasked with getting the new habitat assembled enough to transfer operations as soon as possible. Diana, I’m sorry, I know it’s not ideal, but we’re going to have to put your core into the new station while we’re still building.”

“I can cope with it, Admiral. I certainly prefer having pieces added to having chunks blown off.”

“Anything that can be solved by throwing money at it, solve it. Don’t nickel and dime anything; if the choice is between copper or gold, go for gold.”

“Understood.”

“Diana, you said six months to finish the new station. Is that still a valid estimate?”

“Yes, Admiral. The loss of so many Wolves does complicate matters in the short term, but we can take up the slack by utilizing HLC for boost instead, as the probabilities suggest that Artemis and the Union will be doing far less business with HLC, leaving boost space available.”

“And to get the station minimally functional? Power, defenses, life support, internal docking bays and construction?” Kendra ticked the points off on her fingers.

“Two months for minimal function. Seven months for full construction in that case.”

“Seven?”

“Minimal functionality can be achieved by diverting resources which would otherwise be used –“

“Never mind. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation. Mac. Ted. You two need to stay on top of the recovery project. I’m not going to have the time to oversee, and neither will Cass.”

The new couple seemed to communicate silently, which was unusual enough for Mac, before the IT specialist answered. “We can do that, Kendra. Don’t worry, between Ted’s experience in the UE and my experience with computers we should have everything covered, and if not we can always ask, I’m sure that Harpo or Diana would be able to give us some guidance, but the last time I checked things were moving pretty well, actually it was Ted that checked but we talked about it, you know how that is, don’t you and Cass talk things over?”

“Thank you, Mac, Ted. Alley.”

“Yes, Admiral.”

“The biggest share of keeping the Union off our backs is going to be up to you and your crew. I’m afraid that means not much time for system-hopping, at least until we get more Wolves up and running.”

“Not a problem, Admiral. Patrolling and deterrence is something that both Kiri and I have plenty of experience with.”

“Cass, this means that your Science division won’t have much of anything to do.”

“I disagree. There’s plenty to examine in the Solar System, lots we don’t know, and we have all the data we’ve already collected. Plus there are plans I want to work on for the gas mine for the Wolf system, terraforming Niflheim, and I know that Lt. Zihal wants to figure out how to mine Lemnos. If we can do that, we’re going to solve any cash flow problem that the Federation has for a long, long time. I’ll get Minna to help.”

“I’ll be happy to help you with the design, Commander,” said the AI. “I’ve had some ideas about those projects already.”

“It does sound like you’ll be busy. Candice, I never got a chance to say, but you did perfectly when you took down the Brahe. They needed to be stopped.”

“Thank you, Admiral. It’s been a bit challenging, since then. I’ve never; I mean, yeah, as an agent I’ve taken people out. Admiral, my ship, my weapon, my crew, we took out a battleship with how many people aboard? All dead because we did our jobs. Because I did my job.”

“And if you hadn’t?” asked Kendra, quietly.

“Ma’am?”

“If you hadn’t done your job? If your crew wasn’t up to the task? What then?”

When Candice didn’t answer, Kendra continued.

“Then everyone on this station would be dead. The dream of a Terran Federation would be dead, too.”

“Losing people, losing friends, is never easy. The most we can hope for is that their deaths have meant something, that they did not give the last full measure of devotion in vain. Candice, you, and everyone on Enterprise, you gave us the chance to ensure that our friends’ deaths are meaningful.”

“I’ve said it before. This mighty endeavor is my dream, my vision, my hope for the future. It is going to provide my children, all of our children, a better world to grow up in. A world where, Zeus willing, maybe humanity will learn how to stop killing each other wholesale. And that’s what I –“ She stopped as Cass came and stood beside her, holding her hand. “Sorry. We. What we have pledged our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to achieve. And we have been honored that all of you have come to believe in it as well.”

“We. Will. Succeed. Because of the courage and conviction of people like you. And you. And you.” Kendra gestured with her head as she looked around the room. “Because of the people who have given their lives, and who will give their lives.”

“My friends. My family. My ohana. Nobody gets left behind. Nobody gets forgotten.”

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