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Chapter Eighteen

"And come out of there, you worthless piece of—Ah ha!"

Scooter Smith sat back on his haunches with a triumphant grin as the recalcitrant tracking drive of the LAC's number three laser cluster finally yielded to his ministrations. He didn't know how the defective drive shaft had gotten past the myriad inspections which were supposed to spot such things, but that was less important than that it had. Well, that and the fact that its sub-spec materials had warped and jammed the cluster's training gears solid at a most inopportune moment during yesterday's exercises. It had also managed to splinter and deform itself sufficiently to resist all removal efforts with sullen stolidity for the better part of two hours, and they'd had to strip the entire unit down much further than he'd hoped, but they had it out now.

He tossed it to one of his techs and stood, rubbing the small of his back, then climbed down the side of the work stand.

One of the nicer things about HMS Minotaur's LAC bays was that someone had actually bothered to put some thought into servicing and ammunitioning requirements. Smith's last assignment had been as an assault shuttle section chief aboard HMS Leutzen, and, like every other shuttle maintenance specialist, it seemed as if he'd spent about a third of his on-duty time in a skinsuit or a hardsuit floating around in the zero-gee vacuum of a boat bay while he pulled hull maintenance on one or another of the small craft under his care. In most ways, Minotaur's LACs were simply small craft writ large, and he'd expected to face the same problem, only more so. And he was spending a good bit of time suited up . . . but nowhere near as much of it as he'd anticipated.

Whoever had designed Minotaur had taken extraordinary pains to enhance crew efficiency. Even after five months on board, Smith was still a bit awed by the degree of automation she incorporated. Traditionally, warships had embarked crews which were enormously larger than any merchant ship of equivalent tonnage would have boasted. That was largely because merchant ships tended to be nothing more than huge, hollow spaces into which to stuff cargo, whereas warships were packed full of weapons, ammunition, defensive and offensive electronic warfare systems, sidewall generators, back up fusion plants, bigger Warshawski sails, more powerful beta nodes, and scores of other things merchantmen simply didn't carry and hence had no reason to provide crews for. But it was also true that merchies relied far more heavily than warships on automated and remote systems to reduce manpower requirements still further.

Men-of-war could have done the same thing, but they didn't. Or, at least, they hadn't. The official reason was that large crews provided redundancy. After all, if the fancy automation took a hit that fried it, you needed old-fashioned people with toolkits to fix it. And people were still the ultimate self-programming remotes. If a weapon mount or a critical support system was cut off from the central control net by battle damage, or if the central computers themselves crashed, a warship had the human resources to take over and run things in local control anyway.

That was the official reasoning. Personally, Smith had always suspected that tradition had as much to do with it. Warships always had had enormous crews for their tonnage; ergo they always would have enormous crews, and that was simply The Way It Was. Even in the Royal Manticoran Navy, he'd long since discovered, the military mind liked things to stay nice and predictable.

But the Star Kingdom could no longer afford to hang onto tradition for tradition's sake. Smith hadn't seen the figures—first-class engineering petty officers weren't generally invited in by BuPers to study classified manpower numbers—but he didn't have to see them to know the Navy was increasingly strapped for crews. It was also common knowledge that the Navy and Marines between them now had something like twenty million people in uniform, and the Royal Army's appetite for manpower had turned increasingly voracious as the Navy picked off Peep planets and the Army had to provide garrisons. Altogether, there were probably close to thirty million Manticorans in uniform now, and that was the next best thing to one percent of the Star Kingdom's total population.

One percent didn't sound like a lot . . . until you subtracted it from the most productive portions of your economy just as you geared up to fight an interstellar war on a scale the galaxy hadn't seen in at least four hundred years. Then it became a very big thing indeed, and BuShips, under pressure from BuPers to do something—anything—to reduce manpower demands, had finally caved in on the automation front. Even with all the personnel for her LAC squadrons on board, Minotaur carried a total company of under two thousand, which was less than most battlecruisers a seventh her size. Of course, she didn't mount the normal broadside weapons of a ship of the wall, but Smith figured that even a conventional warship's company could be cut by at least sixty percent if the same standards of automation and remotes were applied to her design. And that could have major consequences for the Navy's front line strength.

Smith supposed it was inevitable—human beings, being human beings—that the new concept would have its critics, and some of the criticisms were no doubt valid. He did tend to get just a bit pissed off with the ones who caterwauled about what a heavy reliance the new design placed on the ship's computers, though. Of course it put a heavy demand on them . . . and anyone but an idiot knew that had always been the case. Human beings could do many of the things their electronic minions normally took care of for them, but they could do very few of those things as well—or in anything like the same amount of time—as their computers could. And there were any number of things people couldn't do without computers. Like navigate a starship. Or run a fusion plant. Or any one of a zillion other absolutely essential, extremely complex, time-critical jobs that always needed doing aboard a warship. It probably made sense to minimize total dependency on the computers and AI loops as much as possible, but it simply couldn't be entirely eliminated. And as long as he had an intact electronics shop, with one machine shop to support it, and power, and life support, Scooter Smith could damned well build any replacement computer his ship might need. All of which meant he wished the whiners and nitpickers would get the hell out of his way so he could get on with enjoying all the marvelous new features the change in design philosophy had brought with it.

In Minotaur's case, those features meant, among other things, that better than eighty percent of the routine hull maintenance on the carrier's LACs could be performed by cybernetic henchmen without ever requiring a suited human presence. Of course, some people—like "Silver Spanner" Maxwell—could break anything, if they put their minds to it, and Maxwell had done just that over on Bay Forty-Six. Smith had never quite understood how someone who was as fundamentally good at his job as Maxwell was could be such a walking disaster area, but there it was. It was almost as if he represented some natural force of chaos or the living personification of Murphy's Law. He always did it by The Book . . . and it always ended up a disaster anyway. Smith only hoped his friend's transfer from Minotaur's deck force to a new slot as LAC 01-001's assistant flight engineer would break the cycle at last, although he had to wonder just what Captain Harmon had been thinking to tap him for her personal bird.

But whatever happened to "Silver Spanner," Smith was delighted with the new remotes. They were almost as impressive as the support a shipyard might have boasted, and he was devoutly grateful to have them. But the designers had gone still further in simplifying his task by designing the LAC bays with outsized bow access tubes. Instead of the standard buffers and docking arms which held a small craft in its boat bay, the LACs' mooring tractors drew them bow-first into a full length docking cradle. In the process, they aligned the little ships' sharp noses with "personnel tubes" fifteen meters across that fitted down over their bows. Since that was where all of the LACs' armament—defensive and offensive alike—was mounted, it let Smith work on things like the jammed laser cluster without suiting up. And additional service tubes to the launchers meant missile reloads could be transported directly from Minotaur's main missile stowage, into the LACs' rotary magazines.

All in all, Smith considered the design concept an enormous improvement over what he'd had to put up with in Leutzen. The LACs outmassed the assault shuttles he'd worked with there by a factor of around thirty-five, yet the six-ship section he had responsibility for here was actually easier to stay on top of than the six-shuttle section he'd been assigned aboard Leutzen. Of course, the thought of what might happen to the ship's hull integrity if some ill-intentioned Peep managed to land a hit on one of these nice, large, efficient, and vulnerable LAC bays hardly bore thinking on, but that was an inescapable consequence of Minotaur's designed role.

"Okay, Sandford. You're on," he said as he stepped from the work stand's last rung to the deck of the access tube. "Get the replacement in and let me know when you're ready to test it. Check?"

The bow of the LAC reared above them, and despite its minuscule size compared to a ship like Minotaur, it dwarfed his entire work party. Which put the rest of the ship into a sobering perspective for people who normally saw it only from the inside.

"Aye, PO." The tech who'd caught the warped drive shaft waved it in acknowledgment. "Should take us about another fifty minutes, I guess."

"Sounds reasonable," Smith agreed, arching his shoulders and massaging his aching back again. Getting the damaged component out had been a major pain, but putting the replacement back in should be relatively straightforward. "I'll be around on Thirty-Six if you need me," he went on. "Caermon has something she wants to discuss about the main radar array."

"Gotcha," Sandford agreed, and Smith nodded and headed off. He did have one other little stop to make, but it was on the way to Bay Thirty-Six where Caermon waited for him, and he grinned as he tapped the data chip in his pocket. He liked Lieutenant Commander Ashford a lot, he really did, but there was something undeniably delicious about receiving not simply official sanction but actual orders to put one over on an officer.

Helps keep them humble, it does, he reflected cheerfully. And humble officers are more likely to remember just who really runs the Queen's Navy. On the other hand, protection from on high or not, I hope to hell he never figures out I was the one who did it to him!

He grinned again and paused as he reached the access tube to Ashford's bird. The LAC sat there all alone, awaiting the service crews who would minister to it in time for the afternoon's exercises, and he nodded to himself. He wouldn't get a better chance, he thought, and sauntered down the tube with a guileless expression.


"And just what the hell did you think you were doing here, Ashford?" Captain Harmon inquired genially as she used an old-fashioned, nonilluminated pointer to gesture at the frozen holo display above the ready room tac table. Tiny LACs, no larger than the nail of her little finger, swarmed in it, color-coded by squadron, as they "attacked" a holo of Minotaur half again the length of her arm. Most of the thirty-six LACs had altered course in the second or so before she had frozen the display, turning so that their bows were pointed directly at Minotaur, but one section of six hadn't, and the dark-haired, dark-eyed captain turned to look at the lieutenant commander who commanded the errant vessels.

"Ah, well, actually, Ma'am—" Ashford began, then exhaled. "Actually," he admitted in an almost but not quite resigned voice, "I was screwing up by the numbers."

"A concise if not particularly helpful analysis," Harmon agreed, but without the biting edge the lieutenant commander had dreaded. His honesty had bought him that much—it was the ones who tried to weasel or excuse their mistakes (or, worse, shuffle responsibility off on someone else) who quickly learned to fear the sharpness of her tongue. Nor did she stop there. Two squadron commanders had already been sent packing, one of them with an efficiency report so scathing it would require a special act of God for her ever to hold a command again.

"Would you happen to know why you screwed up?" she asked now, holding the pointer across her body in both hands.

"I'm still trying to track it down, Skipper," Ashford replied. "It looks like we hit a glitch in the tac computer programming. We're pulling the code to run comparisons against the master files just in case, but at this point, my best bet is human error—mine, I'm afraid—on the input from one of the post-launch mission updates. Kelly was busy running an acceleration recompute when the update for this particular maneuver came in, so I took over the computer and input the change. And I must've gotten it wrong, because when we hit the way point for the turn-in, the computers turned us one-eighty in the opposite direction."

"With this result," Harmon agreed, and nodded.

Commander McGyver, effectively her chief of staff (although The Book hadn't yet decided whether or not a LAC wing's commander was supposed to have a staff—officially) keyed the holo back into movement at the unspoken order. Everyone watched Ashford's section turn directly away from Minotaur . . . at which point every LAC in it instantly flashed a lurid crimson as they exposed the after aspects of their wedges to the carrier and the point defense laser clusters playing the parts of broadside lasers and grasers took the "up the kilt" shots and blew them away. McGyver hit the freeze key again, stopping all motion, and the "dead" LACs hung in the display like drops of fresh blood.

"Had this been an actual attack, rather than a training exercise," Harmon observed dryly, "the consequences of this little error would have been rather permanent. The good news is that it wouldn't have hurt a bit; the bad news is that that's only because every one of Commander Ashford's people would have been dead before they knew it. We can not have something like this happen to us on an actual op, ladies and gentlemen."

She held their eyes, her own stern, until every head had nodded. Then her gaze softened as she looked back at Ashford.

"For the record," she told him, "Commander McGyver, Comfmander Stackowitz and I have all reviewed the chips, and your theory about what happened makes sense. It was a long session, and we threw a lot of updates and mission profile plan changes at you, too. We probably wouldn't have to make anywhere near that many changes to the canned profile in a real op."

One or two people nodded again. Training operations were almost always harder—well, aside from the adrenaline rush, the terror, and the dying—than real attack missions. Which only made sense. In actual combat operations, you would almost always carry out only a single attack per launch—assuming that everything went right and you actually found the enemy at all. But on training flights, you were likely to be tasked with several different "attacks" in a single sortie, and the people who'd planned your mission profiles could be counted on to spend at least some of their time throwing in surprise elements specifically designed to screw things up as severely as possible at the least opportune moment.

Everyone understood why that was, just as they understood that the fact that Harmon and her wing command staff were building an entire doctrinal concept from the ground up required her to be even more ruthless than usual. Still, one or two of her section and squadron leaders had been heard to lament the fact that she'd added Ernest Takahashi to her mission planners. Almost everyone liked the cocky young ensign, but his reputation had preceded him. The story of his modifications to the Kreskin Field flight simulators had put all of them on their guards . . . which had proved an unfortunately foresighted reaction.

Jacquelyn Harmon knew exactly what the officers before her were thinking, and she hid an internal smile. Lieutenant Commander Ashford was going to be moderately livid when he and his people finally did track down the problem, she thought. Assuming that they recognized how it had happened when they found it. And, after all, finding it was another part of their exercise mission, even if they hadn't known that when they started looking, and it would be interesting to see if they went the step further to figuring out the "how" and the "why" as well as the "what." Although, she reminded herself, Ernest was too sneaky to make figuring out what had happened easy. She glanced at the bland-faced ensign, shook her head mentally, and then looked away.

So young and innocent looking for such a depraved soul, she thought cheerfully. And the fact that he and PO Smith served together in Leutzen didn't hurt, now did it? But I do want to see Ashford's reaction if he ever realizes I had his own section chief slip a deliberately rigged modification into his original mission download.

Not that recognizing that it had been deliberate was going to be easy. The file corruption which had transposed Ashford's perfectly correct heading change when he punched it in, while freakish, looked exactly like something that could have happened accidentally. Bruce McGyver had bet her five bucks Ashford's crew would never realize they'd been snookered, but one reason Harmon liked Ashford (though she wasn't about to tell him so) was that he was not only smart but as thorough as they came. If anybody was likely to realize he'd been had, Ashford was the one . . . and if he did, he was going to inherit one of the empty squadron commander slots as a reward. But playing with his head to evaluate him for promotion had been only a secondary objective of the exercise, she reminded herself, and cleared her throat.

"Whatever the cause of the problem, however," she went on, "let's look at the consequences, shall we?" She nodded to McGyver again, and someone groaned aloud as the sudden chink in the LACs' attack plan opened the door to a cascade of steadily accelerating miscues by other squadron and section COs . . . none of whom had the excuse that Harmon and Takahashi had jiggered their software.

And that had been the real point of her devious machinations, Harmon thought, watching the carefully orchestrated strike disintegrate into chaos, because one thing was damned sure. The first law of war was still Murphy's, and units as fragile as LACs had better learn to show it even more respect than anyone else.


"Well it certainly looked like they got the point, Skipper," Lieutenant Gearman remarked with a grin as the last of the squadron and section commanders departed. "Think any of them have figured out you slipped Commander Ashford a ringer?"

"Now when did I ever say I'd done anything of the sort, Mike?" Harmon asked her personal engineer innocently.

"You didn't have to say a word, Skipper. Not when Ernest was grinning like the proverbial Cheshire Cat!"

"There's nothing feline in my ancestry, Sir," Takahashi objected.

"Of course not," Commander McGyver agreed. McGyver was from Sphinx, a startlingly handsome man with platinum blond hair and a powerful physique who walked with a pronounced limp courtesy of a skiing injury which had stubbornly persisted in refusing to mend properly despite all quick heal could do. Now he smiled, even white teeth flashing in a his tanned HD-star face. "Personally, I've always thought of you as having a bit more weasel than feline, Ernest," he announced. "Or possibly a little snake. You know—" he raised an arm and swayed it sinuously back and forth in mid-air "—the sneaky, squirm-through-the-grass-and-bite-you-on-the-butt-when-you're-not-looking variety."

"I wouldn't know about snakes, Sir," Takahashi replied. "We don't have them on Manticore, you know."

"They do on Sphinx," Stackowitz informed him. "Of course, they've got legs on Sphinx, and I don't think Old Earth snakes do. Then again, Sphinx always has been noted for the . . . um, peculiarities of its flora and fauna."

"And people?" McGyver suggested genially, eyes glinting at the ops officer.

"Oh, heavens, Sir! Who would ever suggest such a thing as that?" Like Takahashi, Stackowitz was from Manticore, and her expression could scarcely have been more innocent.

"Personally," Harmon observed, dropping untidily back into her chair and sprawling out comfortably, "I've always figured Carroll must have met a treecat in an opium dream or something when he invented the Cheshire Cat."

"And the lot of you are changing the subject," Gearman pointed out. "You did have Ernest cook his software, didn't you?"

"Maybe," Harmon allowed with a lazy smile. Which, Gearman knew, was as close as she would ever come to admitting it.

He shook his head and leaned back in his own chair. Captain Harmon wasn't quite like any other four-striper he'd ever met. She was at least as cocky and confident as any one of the carefully selected hotshots under her command, and she had a wicked and devious sense of humor. She also possessed a downright infectious enthusiasm for her new duties and actively encouraged informality among all her officers—not just her staff—outside "office hours."

She should have been born two thousand years ago, he often thought, in an era when deranged individuals in flying scarves strapped on so-called "aircraft" more fragile than a modern hang glider, but armed with machine guns, and went out hunting one another. Her training techniques were, to say the least, unconventional, as her latest ploy amply demonstrated, yet she got remarkable results, and she was very consciously and deliberately infusing her personnel with what the ancients had called the "fighter jock" mentality.

Stackowitz had been the first to apply the term to her. Gearman had never heard of it before. He'd been forced to look the term up to figure out what it meant, but once he had, he'd had to admit it fitted Captain Harmon perfectly. And given the unconventionality of her assignment, he mused, her command style was probably entirely appropriate. Certainly none of the by-the-book types he'd served under could have accomplished as much as she had in so short a period.

He leaned back and massaged his closed eyes while he reflected on just how much all of them had accomplished in the last five months. Captain Truman and Captain Harmon could probably have given lessons to the slave-drivers who'd built Old Earth's pyramids, but they did get the job done. And they'd managed to build a solid esprit de corps in the process.

It was a bit confusing to have two Navy captains aboard the same ship, both in command slots, even if one of them was a junior-grade and the other a senior-grade. And it could have led to dangerous confusion as to exactly whom one was speaking to or of in an emergency, which explained why Harmon was almost always referred to as the "COLAC," the brand-new acronym someone had coined for "Commanding Officer, LACs." Harmon had resisted it at first, on the grounds that it sounded too much like "colic," but it had stuck. It still sounded odd, but it was beginning to seem less so, and it certainly made it perfectly clear who you were talking about. (Ernest Takahashi's innocent suggestion that if the Captain objected to "Commanding Officer, LACs," they might try "Commanding Officer, Wing" instead had been rejected with astonishing speed. Even more astonishingly, the lieutenant had survived making it.)

The new title was also only a tiny part of all the adjustments and new departures Minotaur and her company had been forced to deal with. For the first time in modern naval history—the first time in almost two thousand years, in fact—the "main battery" of a unit which had to be considered a capital ship did not operate directly from that ship in action . . . and the ship's captain didn't control it. Gearman couldn't imagine a better choice for Minotaur's CO than Alice Truman. She had the flexibility and the confidence, not to mention the experience, to grasp the changes in the RMN's traditional command arrangements which the introduction of the LAC-carrier implied, and he wasn't sure how many other captains could have said the same thing. But the fact was that once Minotaur's LACs were launched, Jackie Harmon—a mere captain (JG)—had under her command twice as many energy weapons and six and a half times as many missile tubes as the skipper of a Reliant-class battlecruiser. Not only that, but Minotaur's only real function after launching her brood was to get the hell out of the way while Harmon and her squadron COs got on with business.

That required a genuine partnership between Truman and Harmon. There was no question as to who was in command, but Truman had to be smart enough to know when a call properly belonged to Harmon, and the two of them had worked out the CO's and COLAC's spheres of authority and responsibility with remarkably little friction. More than that, they were the ones who got to make up The Book on carrier ops as they went, and they'd written those spheres into it. By the time the next LAC-carrier commissioned, its skipper would already know how the areas of authority were supposed to break down.

And for all intents and purposes, Gearman was getting to write the Book for LAC engineers. His position as Harmon's engineer aboard Harpy (still known officially by her call sign of "Gold One") made him her de facto staff engineer, as well, and he had to admit that he felt like a kid on Christmas whenever he contemplated the marvelous new toys the Navy had given him.

The Shrikes were sweet little ships, with the latest generation of inertial compensator and a max acceleration rate which had to be seen to be believed. And the systems engineered into them—! The demanding cycle of exercises Truman and Harmon had laid on seemed to be demonstrating the fundamental soundness of the doctrine ATC had worked out for them, although a few holes had already been detected and repaired, and the hardware itself performed almost flawlessly.

But what had come as the greatest surprise to him were the differences the change in power plants made. He'd known what they were going to be—intellectually, at least—but that had been very different from the practical experience, and he sometimes found himself wondering just how many other things that everyone "knew" were true were nothing of the sort. In a very real sense, the best thing Grayson had done for the Star Kingdom was to force people in places like the Bureau of Ships to reconsider some of those "known facts" in a new light, he reflected, and wondered how long it would be before BuShips did decide to start building fission plants into at least their smaller starships.

Now that he'd been exposed to the theory behind them, he could see why such reactors had been genuinely dangerous in their early, primitive incarnations back on Old Earth (or, for that matter, their reinvented early, primitive incarnations back on Grayson). Of course, most new technologies—or even established ones—were dangerous if they were misused or improperly understood. And it was obvious from the history books which BuShips had dug up when it wrote the training syllabus for the new plants that the original fission pioneers on Old Earth had misunderstood, or at least misestimated, some of the downsides of their work. Gearman was at a loss to understand how anyone could have blithely set out to build up huge stocks of radioactive wastes when they had absolutely no idea how to get rid of the stuff. On the other hand, he also had to admit that the people who'd predicted that ways to deal with it would be devised in time had been correct in the long run—or would have been, if not for the hysteria of the idiots who'd thrown out the baby with the bath before those ways were worked out—but still . . .

Yet whatever his remote ancestors might have thought of fission, Gearman loved the piles in his new ships. They were smaller, lighter, and actually easier to operate than a fusion plant would have been, and the increase in endurance was incredible. In his previous stint in LACs, he'd been even more paranoid about reactor mass levels than most warship engineers because he'd had so little margin to play with. Now he didn't even have to consider that, and the sheer, wanton luxury of it was downright seductive. Not that there weren't a few drawbacks—including the procedure for emergency shutdown in case of battle damage. If a fusion plant's mag bottle held long enough for the hydrogen flow to be shut off, that was basically that. In a fission plant, however, you were stuck with a reactor core that was its own fuel . . . and which would do Bad Things if the coolant failed. But the Grayson tech reps seemed confident where their fail-safes were concerned. Which wasn't to say that every engineer from the Star Kingdom would agree with them. After all, their entire tech base was so much cruder, accepted so many trade-offs . . .

He gave himself a mental shake. Grayson's technology had been much cruder than Manticore's, yes. But they'd made enormous progress in closing the gap in just the nine and a half years since joining the Alliance, and "crude" didn't necessarily mean the same thing as "unsophisticated," as the new generation of inertial compensators amply demonstrated.

And as these new fission plants are going to demonstrate all over again, he told himself firmly, and looked up as Captain Harmon turned her attention to Lieutenant Commander Stackowitz.

"I've talked Captain Truman into signing off on the expenditure of some real missiles for live-fire exercises tomorrow, Barb," she told her staff operations officer.

"Really, Skipper?" Stackowitz brightened visibly. "Warshots, or training heads?"

"Both," Harmon said with a shark-like grin. "Training heads for the shots at the Minnie, of course, but we get to use warshots for everything else. Including," the grin grew even more shark-like, "an all-up EW exercise. Five squadrons worth."

"We get to play with Ghost Rider?" Stackowitz' eyes positively glowed at that, and Harmon nodded.

"Yep. The logistics pipeline just delivered an entire new set of decoy heads with brand-new signal amplifiers—the ones you were telling me about last month, in fact. We've got to share them with Hancock Base, but there're more than enough of them to go around."

"Oh boy," Stackowitz murmured almost prayerfully, and then gave McGyver a grin that eclipsed the COLAC's. "I told you they were going to make a difference, Bruce. Now I'll show you. I'll bet you five bucks they cut Minotaur's tracking capability against us by thirty-five percent—and that's with CIC knowing what we're doing!"

"I'll take five dollars of that," McGyver agreed with a chuckle, and Harmon shook her head.

"Some people would bet on which direction to look for sunrise," she observed. "But now that those important financial details have been settled, let's get down to some specifics about said exercise. First of all, Barb—"

She leaned forward over the table, and her staffers listened intently, entering the occasional note into their memo pads while she laid out exactly what it was she wanted to do.


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