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Slow Train to Arcturus: Chapter Thirteen

       Last updated: Monday, July 14, 2008 20:52 EDT



Transcript of meeting 37 of the Deepspace design and Engineering team (Slowtrain project), and Sysgov Administrator Belthazar Lowe (Accounts)

One of the things you've got to accept, is that it isn't the habitat launch that we consider important. The gauss-rings are being set up to serve our future purposes of moving materials insystem—ice from the Oort rings, particularly—not sending a bunch of misfits outsystem or launching the Astronomy Commission's probes. Therefore the positioning and size of the gauss-rings must fit our principal purpose. You'll have to prove that to me if you want me to release the money."



    Kretz had wanted the other airlock, the airlock closest to his spacecraft. But it had defied him too, and refused to open. So they had taken the long walk to the up-pole airlock. Howard had no idea why it was called that. It just was.

    And God had not intervened to stop them going through it.

    The airlock closed behind them with a hiss. Howard looked around the metal-walled room with some horror—for good reason. There were several skeletons lying there. The grey utilitarian clothes of the brethren remained but the flesh had gone the way of all flesh. A few strands of hair still clung to some of the skulls.

    A voice spoke from the box on the far wall. "Depressurization will begin in ten minutes. Please don your suits and run through pre-vacuum-checks. Depressurization may be interrupted by pressing the red buttons, at any point. To re-initiate the sequence press the green button on the control console."

    "There is someone here," said Howard, alarmed. "Perhaps one of the ones who was exiled? Are they actually in that little box?"

    Kretz shook his head. "It will be a recording. Or a computer voice simulation."

    The thing Kretz called Transcomp had no human words for either of those devices. Or maybe it did—it extrapolated words, but Howard recognized neither.

    "We'd better look for a suit for you," said Kretz. "If this matches the design of the lock on the last habitat they should be on a rack inside that wall-plate there."

    They were. The wall-plate slid open and revealed them. The suits were ranged in a large number of sizes, hung neatly above the boots, with helmets on the top shelf. "Dress," said Kretz.

    "Do I have to put one of those on?" asked Howard, doubtfully. "It is our belief that the simple garb of the brethren is far better protection than clothes which serve vainglory and folly."

    Kretz felt the cloth of the homespun of Howard's sleeve. Then he lifted it to his mouth and drew breath through it. He shook his head. "It is not airtight, Brother Howard. Here. Try it on my sleeve." He held up an arm to Howard's mouth. "Breathe through it."

    Embarrassed, but obedient, Howard did. It was like sucking on a sheet of glass.

    The only reason that he could think of that such a fabric might be valuable was to keep one dry. "Is it going to be wet on the other side of that airlock?" he asked, being glad that he had learned to swim, on those frowned-on trips to the pole reservoir.

    "No. Airless, as I said to you," said Kretz. "But like being underwater, in that you cannot breathe out there."

    "Uh. Brother Kretz. I can't hold my breath for very long. I didn't actually like putting my head underwater," admitted Howard. How was something “airless”?

    "There are tanks of air here. The same as the thing that you took to be a backpack on my suit," explained Kretz.

    The idea fascinated Howard. He'd often dreamed of making a device that would have allowed him to go underwater in the end-seas. His idea had been to take a heavy bath that could be inverted and be pressed down into the water, taking the trapped air under with it. He'd even done a few simple experiments in his own bath in this direction. But it had been something that had never gone beyond the realms of speculation, really. He knew that the council would never have allowed it.

    "I think that you will have to undress first," said Kretz.

    Howard was shocked. A man did not undress before another person, unless it was his wife. Kretz was half-female, after all, even if he was not human. "I can't," he said.

    "Howard," said Kretz.

    He was learning to read the alien's expressions by now. That was irritation. "Yes?" he answered.

    "Do you see these bones? That is what will happen to you if you do not put on a suit, helmet and boots and clip on the air tank."

    It was a powerful argument, when you put it like that. Howard stripped. He allowed Kretz to help him dress, and they dealt with the unfamiliar fastenings together. Kretz also found a rack of cylinders. He took one and fitted it onto a box-device on the back of the suit. Howard was startled to see a plate on his wrist change color from red to green. He pointed it out.

    Kretz pursed his lips into his smile. "Good. It must be an air-pressure indicator. I did not know if the cylinders would still retain pressure. The humans who built this were first-class engineers."

    He didn't say that the Brethren weren't, but somehow Howard got the feeling that he was saying and you carry water in wooden buckets.

    Kretz handed Howard a helmet. "Once that is on we will not be able to talk. I am going to attach you to me. If you need to say something, press your helmet against mine." Howard noticed, in the dissociated way of someone who is on the verge of panic, that Kretz had extended a hood from the suit that he was so fond of and that a transparent screen now covered his face. He noticed that Kretz had taken the little parcel of journey bread and preserves and soup and put it into a suit too. And then put boots and hood onto that, which was truly strange. Did the alien think that it had a life of its own?

    "Depressurization sequence beginning," said the box voice, as Kretz clicked the helmet into place. Howard still wanted to know: how did they fit someone into a box that size? Anyway, he preferred thinking about that type of problem than about what he was about to see, outside of New Eden. Ideas on the subject kept troubling his mind as Kretz attached a rope onto a clip on his suit's belt. Would there be the corridors of Earth—the source of persecution and corruption—out there? Or would there be a way through to Kretz's “ship”?

    Kretz had tried to explain. All that Howard had managed to understand was that it was big and empty and that the light out there did not come from light-tubes. And it was not easy to cross.



    Then, after an eternity, a door at the far side of the room slid open, and Kretz pointed at it. Awkwardly, as his boots seemed to stick to the floor, Howard moved forward. Out onto a metal platform…. and froze in the doorway.

    He was looking out onto more emptiness than his mind could deal with. Tiny points of light turned in the blackness. And there was no end to it. He knew that he was screaming, but he couldn't help himself.

    Eventually Kretz had to pull him inside. The door to the terrible nothingness closed. Howard just stood there. Even the bones looked familiar and safe compared to that.

    "It is now safe to release the helmet seals" a voice said—the same voice that had spoken from the box.

    Voices in your head! A sure sign of demonic possession! Brother Galsson had been right.

    Kretz lifted the helmet off Howard's head. "I could not prepare you," he said.

    Howard shook his head, slowly. "What was that?"

    "That was you would call 'the heavens,'” explained Kretz.

    "Not heaven," said Howard, sitting down, slumping against the wall. "Not hell either. That is a place of hellfire. Out there it is just dark."

    "It is, out here, far from the light of the sun."

    "But it is so big. So open. Where is the end of it?" Howard was still stunned and fearful.

    "We're not sure if there is one," answered Kretz.

    Howard's next words surprised himself. But they were drawn from somewhere deep inside his mind. "We've been so small. How could we be so small in the face of something so great? We have hidden away from it."

    The alien cocked his head in that oddly human gesture. "It is both frightening and magnificent."

    "Yes. Both frightening and magnificent," said Howard. He'd never had the experience that others had described of a spiritual enlightenment. And now, in the midst of his fear and the smell that came from the suit… he knew that he had finally done so. "I have looked on the infinity of God," he said humbly. "And I was very afraid. What were the spots of light, Brother Kretz?"

    "Suns. Very far off suns."

    Was it not written “And the sun shall not smite thee by day…”? So that was what it referred to.

    "The brightest one you saw is ours. Miran is the second world orbiting it."

    Kretz had obviously learned to recognize Howard's blank look. "That is where I came from. My spacecraft crossed the heavens to come here."

    Howard stared in awe at the alien. "How could anyone cross that?"

    Kretz narrowed his lips in his smile. "Howard. As I said to you: This 'New Eden' of yours is a spacecraft. Or, rather, your whole world is part of a spacecraft. We saw you crossing the heavens and came to find out what you were."

    Howard wrestled with this one. "New Eden is also definitely this thing you call a spacecraft?" Yes. He remembered that Kretz had said that before. But that was before it meant anything to him.

    "Yes," Kretz nodded. "Much bigger than ours, intended for a far longer journey."

    Howard looked at the metal floor. "I believed… in my heart of hearts that New Eden was all that really existed."

    Kretz shook his head. "There are millions and million of worlds out there. Orbiting around hundreds of millions of suns. They're many thousands of times bigger than New Eden," said the alien, cheerfully compounding Howard's turmoil. "I suppose in a way, you are naturally going to be frightened…"

    "You don't understand," said Howard, interrupting, fierce feeling overwhelming politeness. He had to tell someone, and Kretz was the only person there was to tell. "I have been kept in a tiny little cage all my life. With limits. Limits on what I could think. Limits on what I could do. It chafed me. But I did not know why. I didn't even know that I was inside the cage. I feel as if I've been a chick growing inside an egg. I didn't know there was an outside to the egg. Why didn't you tell me?!"

    Kretz smiled. "I was not sure that you could deal with a bigger universe. Your kind have lived in a very sheltered and protected environment for many generations, even if you did build this ship."

    "I don't think some of us would deal with it too well," admitted Howard. "Someone like Brother Galsson, probably couldn't. It still frightens me, but another part of me wants to go out and see it. See all of it."

    This definitely amused Kretz. "There is rather a lot of it. I will settle for seeing if we can get to my spacecraft. I must be honest with you, Howard. If we can go along the outer skin of the habitats I don't really need you, except perhaps as security. I wanted a human with me if I had to venture back inside. I am very afraid of your kind."

    Howard was a little puzzled by this. But he'd heard what Kretz had said about the next space habitat. He was part way to understanding just what a habitat was, now. It would be a world such as his own New Eden. A tiny enclosed piece of greenness and light in an infinity of blackness. But that Eden had been taken over by striped-faced snakes.

    He took a deep breath. "But if you cannot, you will need my help. So: let us go and find out."

    "Very well. Put on your helmet again. It is important that we move quite fast out there."

    Howard knew that it would be it was the most courageous thing he'd ever done. But somehow, he could not have resisted trying again. He took a deep breath. Held up a hand to stop Kretz. "Brother. I will try not to look other than at my feet as I may slow you down. Will you lead me?"



    This time Howard kept his eyes on the metal floor of the hanging catwalk, trying not to be distracted by the vast panoply visible through the bars.

    The headlights helped, making a narrow pool of light for his feet. He couldn't help but see some of space, and the vastness of New Eden above him, but at least it kept him from being too distracted.

    They walked a long way. And then, when he was just daring to take a peek sideways, they stopped. Kretz was at a gate. Beyond it, Howard could see a metal-runged ladder. However, despite Kretz's efforts, the gate did not open. It appeared to have no form of catch. After some passage of time, they walked back to the airlock.

    Howard had gotten far more used to looking around by then. He could see, across the blackness, the cable that linked New Eden to the next habitat. It was a good five cubits thick—still an incredibly frail link for something as vast as their world.

    Once the airlock had cycled closed, Howard removed his helmet. Kretz sat down, next to the bones of the exiled brethren, and—even if he was alien—looked despairing. "I've lost the tool I need to open the gate," he said. "I used it to gain access to the tube I crawled down to reach your habitat. I thought we could go around, outside and over the equatorial ridge."

    He sighed, again, an oddly human mannerism. "I cannot get back to my ship. The only possibility is the lander, and that is five habitats on from here."

    Howard patted his arm, awkwardly. "Then that is what we must do."

    "I am afraid," said Kretz.

    "So am I," admitted Howard. "Although, for me, these experiences have almost become dreamlike, they are so far beyond my understanding, Kretz. I think I would be rigid with terror if I wasn't… somehow detached." He paused. "I have one question… all of those spots of light?"

    "Suns, yes. Very distant suns, as I told you."

    "Why are the suns moving? Where are they going to?" asked Howard.

    "The suns are not moving. Or at least they're not moving very fast. The space habitat—New Eden—spins, to provide a simulated gravity through centrifugal force."

    Howard looked blankly at him. "I don't understand it," he said, eventually. "But I want to. I want to understand it all."

    Kretz drew his lips into his smile. "Like space, there is quite a lot of it. What I am going to suggest we do now is entirely insane. That was how I got my place on this expedition. Because I am a little mad."

    "Mad?" asked Howard, warily.

    "Yes. By the standards of my people. Of course there are many mad people, but not all of them are biologists and mechanical engineers." He paused. "We need to cross the gap between the two habitats. I crossed the gap by crawling down the hollow inside of the cable. It is plainly intended to be possible. There are other pipes in there, perhaps linking all the habitats, perhaps there to replenish ones that are in need. But we can't get in there. So we must go along the outside."

    "It looked like a long way to climb," said Howard, doubtfully.

    "It would be too far to climb. Besides I do not think we could. But I think we can fly," said Kretz.

    Howard looked long and hard at him. "You have assured me you were not an angel, or a demon. I have seen your body, and I know you have no wings. How do you plan to fly? Even in the low gravity heart of New Eden, men cannot fly. Can you?"

    "I'd forgotten that you would be familiar with low gravity. When we leave the ship and go along the cable, there will be virtually no gravity. And the slightest thrust would send us away into the heavens. There is nothing to push against to come back, either."

    Howard digested this. "Then I think we must use this rope that they have seen fit to equip these suits with. If we tied it to one wrist and then passed it around the cable, and then tied it to the other wrist again… but how strong is that arm of yours?"

    Kretz nodded. "I had thought about that. My arm will be strong enough. But I am surprised you thought of it, Howard. You have surprised me a great deal. You appear to be such primitive people, and yet you grasp things with speed."

    "I've surprised myself," said Howard, standing just a little taller. "But all of this has left me very hungry. I saw you put the food into a suit. Were you planning to take it with us, or should we eat?"

    Kretz shook his head and smiled. "Perhaps we Miranese need you humans. I had forgotten about it."

    "Why did you put it in the suit?" asked Howard.

    "Depressurization and cold would have ruined it," explained Kretz.

    "There is still so much for me to learn," said Howard humbly.

    He hadn't yet learned to work out quite what alien laughter sounded like, but he suspected the gurgling noise Kretz made might just be that.

    They ate, carefully sitting where the bones were not visible. Then Kretz rigged a sling from a safety rope to carry several extra bottles of air. Or tried to, at least. Once Howard worked out what the alien was doing, he took over. Howard had made things with his hands all his life. Kretz plainly had not. Besides, if they could take cylinders he could take his clothes, even use them to make part of the carrier.

    When it was time to go, Kretz turned to Howard. "We could be dead, shortly. Do you not wish to remain here?"

    A part of Howard wanted to stay, very, very badly. Even staying here with the bones was better than what even the alien plainly regarded as a mad enterprise. But…

    He'd lived through so many mad enterprises since he came through that airlock. The frequency of them had numbed him. He just stood up, and took the sling. They had no way of taking the rest of the provisions, sadly. It went against every grain of Howard's conservative soul to waste.

    They went out again. By now Howard felt that he was becoming a seasoned explorer of space. He was quite blasé about it. Not even shaking that much.

    But he was totally unprepared for what Kretz did, this time.

    The alien climbed out between the bars of the catwalk where it met the airlock and was a little wider, and turned himself upside-down so his boots came into contact with the white roof… well, not really the roof. The outside of New Eden itself. He hung upside-down. Like a bee. And then he motioned for Howard to follow.

    Doing so was the greatest leap of faith that the New Eden man had ever made.

    His boots also stuck… and sank slightly into the white stuff. But to walk—having to pull loose each foot, hanging—was pure torture. Howard was sure that he was going to fly off into the endless void with each step



    The strangest thing was that it got slowly better. By the time the base of the cable came in sight, Howard didn't feel as if he was walking upside-down any more. Instead, the force tried to drag him backwards. But it decreased, step by step, until, at last, they stood at the cable.

    There was a railing around the base of it, and it stretched up into the blackness, to the distant curve of another habitat, like a huge bead on a string. The cable was several feet thick, but it seemed very thin when it had the gulf of the void all around it. Without conscious thought, Howard began to pray, the simple prayers of his childhood.

    They walked around the cable—it was more like a very thick pole in appearance—and put the ropes around it, attached them to their belt snap-links. Then came the worst. Kretz reclaimed the sling-bag, and got up onto the rails, using the rope around the cable to keep his balance. Breathing hard, although Kretz had said he shouldn't, Howard got up too. He put a hand against the great cable to steady himself.

    As he fell, he realized that the cable was turning—or perhaps New Eden was. But he was floating only secured by the thin cord on his belt. And his fall had pulled his partner too… Or perhaps Kretz had jumped.

    They were free-floating a few yards above the turning railings. And then Kretz took out an air cylinder, opened the valve at the top, and pointed it back at the outside of New Eden. They began to move, not too fast, but steadily, toward the next space habitat.

    Flight was something the bees could keep to themselves, so far as Howard was concerned.

    Theirs was not a fast progression. As they crossed further out into the gulf, Howard had the a long time to consider how insignificant he was against the hugeness of God's creation. He even got detached enough to think that the experience would do the likes of Brother Galsson the world of good.

    They were using the third and last cylinder when Howard noticed something faintly alarming. The disc on his arm that Kretz had said indicated air-pressure was no longer green. Instead a good two thirds of it was now red. And although Kretz was shaking the cylinder in his hand furiously… they weren't moving forward very fast.

    The turning surface of the new habitat was still a good hundred yards below them. And if he was any judge of alien expression—Kretz was at edge of panic. Kretz threw the cylinder back toward New Eden. It produced a few yards of movement… They were still a long way from the next Habitat.

    And plainly the alien was out of ideas as well as the air that had pushed them this far.

    Howard took a deep breath—even if he shouldn't do so. And pulled himself closer to the cable. He was one of the Society of Brethren. He knew God had given man muscles to use, and the cable was thick, but not frictionless.

    Wrapping his hands around the rope clipped to his belt, he pulled himself flush against it, and began shinning his way along the cable to a new world, towing his alien companion. After the briefest pause, Kretz pulled himself in and then, alien and Human, they linked hands and pulled themselves towards what was slowly becoming down.

    The Brethren believed in the virtue of hard work, and by the time they reached the railings of the habitat, Howard was glad of it. It was hard to judge through the view plate of Kretz's suit, but the alien's grip had weakened on the last part. Howard would bet he was tired too. Still—their feet were down on the outside of whole new habitat. A new world!

    They un-clipped and began walking… Howard noticed that the disk on his sleeve now showed a thin band of green and was otherwise almost entirely red. If he understood it correctly that meant he had very little air left. He tried to walk a little faster. Then he noticed that Kretz—whose line had constantly pulled him forward on their walk to the cable, was lagging. Actually, the alien had stopped completely. Kretz staggered, almost pulling Howard from his upside-down stance. Now that he understood that the habitats spun on the cable, the feeling of being upside down was quite understandable. Logical, in fact. It was still uncomfortable, but he could see the railing of the catwalk ahead. It drew him like a magnet. Besides they were walking with the spin—it was less effort.

    Something in his helmet flashed red just above his eyes. At the top edge of the visor, Howard saw text appear, as if by a miracle.

    If it was a divine message, it was not a kindly one. It read:


    And his alien companion was standing still, and leaning gently with the spin, his eyes closed.

    The end of his ordeal was just so achingly close. And if he understood the message right he had very little air left. Well. He had no choice really. He could not just abandon the alien here. But carrying him, upside down like this, was going to be difficult. He went back. It took all the strength and courage the he had, but there was enough. He pulled one of Kretz's feet away from the surface, and then the other… and then realized he should have held on to him… The alien was floating away. But they were tethered together. And towing him had to be easier than trying to carry him.

    It worked. But the red text now said WARNING 6 MINUTES OF RESERVE. Howard tried to keep calm, keep walking. It was a long way, towing his companion behind him. Was Kretz dead? He could never do that crossing back home without the alien. His blind faith in Kretz's knowledge and ability had carried them this far. But he was sure that it wouldn't carry him back. And the red text was ticking away the minutes of reserve air. It was reading seconds only when they got to the railing of the catwalk. He had to walk along the outside until he found a corner they could fit through. Howard squeezed between the bars, and hauled Kretz in and through. Now, the right way up again, Howard resolutely ignored the red text and picked up Kretz and began walking to the airlock. Breathing was difficult.

    He knew how to open the airlock after having watched the last time… and he how to close it for re-pressurization… But he was not sure that he could manage the helmet, before he died here. He needed to breathe, his body shrieked. He forced himself to keep calm, to wait, as they had when Kretz had taken him out twice before. The 'pressurization complete' light did nor seem to be coming.

    When it did, he was almost too weak to do the catch.

    He sucked air. It smelled just like the air of New Eden. This airlock, however, had no old bones in it.



    Kretz opened his eyes, feeling something patting his face. Vaguely he remembered beginning the walk to the habitat airlock. And then nothing, except for the alien prizing his feet off the metal of the habitat. Yet, plainly, he'd got here. He opened his eyes. The alien Howard was staring down at him, with the wrinkled expression he'd learned meant worry. Howard wore it a lot.

    "Are you all right?" asked the alien.

    A good question. He was feeling extremely exhausted, actually. But that was not surprising considering the physical exercise and the fact that he'd barely recovered from his last set of injuries. Also the human food hadn't killed him, yet, but his diet was probably short of a fair number of things. Marin were broadly omnivorous, and historically had adapted to living on everything from an almost pure vegetable diet to one which had been almost entirely made up of deep-water invertebrate creatures, but never alien food, even if some of it was very appetizing. "I think so." he said, moving his limbs experimentally. "What happened?

    Howard sat back and exhaled. "I thought you might have died. Or run out of air like I did."

    "You did?" It had not occurred to Kretz that that was a possibility. His own suit-re-breather system was good for at least another trek across the surface. He had of course no real idea what the oxygen requirement of these aliens was. Perhaps their metabolisms were much faster than a Miran's metabolism. Perhaps their re-breathers were less efficient. "So how did you get here? How did I get here?"

    "I carried you," explained Howard.

    Well. The metabolic requirement for that sort of load-carrying would have been high, no matter how fast the alien metabolism was. "Thank you."

    It seemed that statement was as important to aliens as it was to Miran. The big human flushed. "It was nothing. I expect you'd have done the same for me."

    Kretz had to feel somewhat guilty. Actually, what he had done was to risk the human's life for his own benefit. True, he had intended—if reasonably possible, to return Howard to his habitat—well, if he could. But he'd wanted a human escort to protect him against humans. And he'd wanted a human escort to enable him to get back to his people and warn them that it was no probe coming through their system but a habitat full of settlers. Vicious, cruel, Miran-killing settlers. A plague that would have to be destroyed first before it killed Miranese. In that first habitat they had abused him and the other Miran explorers. It dawned on him now that he had in turn abused the hospitality and kindness of the New Eden 'Brethren'. True, they were primitive and their habitat was going to break down further as the technical support systems—which they plainly no longer understood—broke down. They needed help. And what had he done: take one of their people as a human shield. He suspected—by the speed that Howard had understood and adapted—that he had taken one of their best. One of those that offered some kind of hope of survival. It was still something of a wild guess as to how long this string of habitats had been streaming through space at one third lightspeed, but it must be a long time. Perhaps the habitat that he and the others had been ambushed in, had once been peaceful and the occupants as hospitable as these 'brethren' before their society collapsed. His own people had been quite savage in the distant past. Nowadays they were peaceful—but now—with shrinking populations and plentiful resources they could afford to be.

    "Shall we see what this new habitat holds?" he asked, unlocking the switches to convert his pressure suit into something he could wear with more comfort.

    "I should like to change first," said Howard stiffly.

    Kretz had been somewhat puzzled by the the clothing taboos of the humans of New Eden. It probably came of having two distinct birth-to-death sexes. Every Miran knew after all that they were going to have intimate knowledge of male and female bodies sooner or later. There seemed to be a great deal of conflict and misunderstanding between the human sexes. It seemed to make for all sorts of behavioral and societal problems. He'd love to study it, if he had time. "I still have the sling," he said, handing it to Howard.



    Howard didn't understand Kretz's feeling on clothing. Or on sexes for that matter. He just knew that he wasn't comfortable in the space suit, and longed for the familiarity of his own clothes.

    Alas, he was poorly prepared for the effects of deep space on natural fabrics.

    His woolen homespun trousers were shredded. He held them up in horror. "What happened!"

    Kretz put his hand to his face. "I'm sorry, Howard. I think there must have been moisture in the fabric. Of course it froze out in the cold of space. And with the movement it must have needed to bend. Bent frozen fabrics crack."

    Howard shook his head, looking at the tatters. "But what am I to wear," he asked desperately. "I can't go out there naked! I…I'll have to stay in this clumsy thing. The people here can't see me undressed!"

    "Then you will just have to remain in it," said Kretz. "Let us go on, Howard."

    They walked to inner lock. It opened before they touched it, and Howard saw a startled looking local staring in at them—and Howard realized that they might not see him undressed… but he was going to see them in that state.

    It seemed that Brother Galsson was right after all. This was one of the cities of the plain. Gomorrah, at a guess.

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