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Chapter Forty-Three

Citizen Lieutenant Commander Heathrow hadn't been at all happy when he received his latest orders, but he hadn't been sufficiently unhappy to let it show. That was a bad enough idea for a Republican officer when it was merely Navy orders he objected to.

Still, it did seem unfair to pick on him for this. State Security had skimmed off large enough numbers of badly needed warships for its own private use, and the SS was notoriously secretive about its affairs. Those were two good reasons they should have been able to send one of their own courier boats right there!

But they hadn't, for whatever reason. Officially (and it might even be true) the problem was shortage of time and resources in the wake of the Navy's achievements at the front. Heathrow was too junior an officer to have access to any of the classified briefings, but even peasants like him knew Citizen Secretary McQueen's enormously successful offensives had thrown the Republic's naval forces into utter confusion. In some ways, following up success had wreaked more havoc with their deployments than years of slow, steady retreat had, and Heathrow supposed StateSec might be experiencing echoes of that same mad scramble to reorganize on the fly.

But whatever the reason, the StateSec CO in Shilo had needed a courier—fast—and he hadn't had any courier boats of his own immediately available. What he had had, however, was the standing SS authority to requisition the "support" of any Navy or Marine units which he might happen to decide he needed, and so Heathrow and his crew had ended up stuck with the job. Which explained why he was sitting very nervously in his command chair and watching Citizen Lieutenant Bouret follow Camp Charon's extremely specific helm instructions. Given the number of targeting systems currently illuminating his command and StateSec's obsessive suspicion of the regular Navy, neither Heathrow nor Bouret had the least intention of straying so much as a meter from their cleared flight path. Besides, the damned mines out there looked thick enough to walk on.

Heathrow made himself sit back and ease his death grip on the chair arms. It wasn't easy, and he tried to distract himself by studying his plot. Camp Charon had warned him in brusque, no-nonsense tones that Navy ships were not encouraged to use active sensors this close to StateSec's private little planet, but even passive sensors and old-fashioned visuals were enough to show Heathrow that he wanted nothing to do with this place. Seeing all that orbital firepower made his skin crawl. This was supposed to be a prison, not some kind of fortress against the universe, for God's sake! What did they expect? That the prisoners were somehow going to signal an enemy fleet to come charging in and attack the system? It had to be something like that—or else sheer, paranoid distrust of the Republic's own Navy—because there was no way in hell StateSec needed remote missile platforms, graser and laser platforms, and minefields against anyone on the surface of Hades.

I just hope that the fact that they had to tell me the systems coordinates so I could get here in the first place doesn't come back to haunt me, Heathrow thought mordantly. I can see it now: "We can tell you how to get there, but then we'll have to kill you. Here, take Citizen Warden Tresca this message, then report back for . . . um, debriefing. Thank you very much, and remember—StateSec is your friend!"

"We're coming up on our designated orbit, Skipper," Bouret reported.

"Good. We're a lot more likely to attract some loose mine when we're moving under power," Heathrow muttered. "Time to thruster shutdown?"

"Eight minutes," Bouret replied.

"Very well."

Heathrow watched the plot as the courier boat's icon drifted ever so slowly towards precisely the proper spot. They'd been on reaction thrusters with their wedge down for the last hour, as per instructions from Camp Charon. His mission brief had warned him that would be SOP once he arrived; apparently StateSec imposed it on everyone who came to Cerberus, though for the life of him Heathrow couldn't understand the reasoning behind that particular bit of idiocy. But as with all the other foolishness which had come his way, he'd known better than to argue. Nonetheless, he would have felt much more comfortable with the wedge up. At least it would have offered his ship some protection if one of those hordes of mines took it into its idiot-savant brain that she was a hostile unit.

And after associating with StateSec for so long, the poor things probably think everybody is "the enemy," the citizen lieutenant commander thought moodily.

"Done with thrusters, Skipper," Bouret reported finally.

"Very good." Heathrow looked over his shoulder at the com section. "Are you ready to transmit, Irene?"

"Yes, Sir," Citizen Ensign Howard replied promptly.

Heathrow glanced over at Bouret with a grin, but he didn't correct her. One of the few things that made the cramped confines of a courier boat endurable was that such vessels were considered too small and unimportant to require their own people's commissioners. Which meant there was still one place in the Navy where officers could be naval officers.

"Request authorization and validation for download, then," Heathrow instructed her after a moment.

"Transmitting now," Howard said, and punched a key at her console. She watched her display, listening to her earbug carefully, then grunted in satisfaction. "Receipt code validation confirmed, Sir," she said. "The crypto files are unlocking now." She sat for several more seconds, watching the display flicker and dance as her onboard computers communed with those on the planet below in a cyber-speed game of challenge and response. Then a bright green code flashed, and she looked over her shoulder at Heathrow.

"Master encryption unlock confirmed, Sir. The message queue is uploading now. Time for full data dump nine minutes, ten seconds."

"Excellent, Irene. That was smoothly done."

"Thank you, Sir!" Howard beamed like a puppy with a new chew toy, and Heathrow made a mental note to speak to her about her mode of address after all. She was a good kid, and he wouldn't be doing her any favors if he got her into the habit of using recidivist modes of address. At the same time, it wouldn't do to hammer her hard over it all of a sudden. Better to wait and speak to her off-watch—or better yet, let Bouret talk to her. He was closer to her rank and age, and it wouldn't sound as threatening coming from him. Besides, if Heathrow spoke to her himself, he'd almost have to sound as if he were reprimanding her for something ... or else risk sounding as if he thought the whole "Citizen This" and "Citizen the Other" business was stupid. Which he did, but letting anyone else know that wouldn't be the very wisest thing he could possibly do.

He frowned and rubbed his chin, letting his mind play with the best way to go about it, then shrugged. He'd find an approach that worked . . . and he'd have plenty of time to hunt for it, too. They had two more stops after Hades before they returned to Shilo and hoped Shilo State Security would finally release them for their interrupted trip to the Haven System, after all.

Yeah, and were not going to get offered any R&R at this stop, he thought. Not that I really want to complain. Voluntarily spend leave time surrounded by an entire island full of SS goons? Uh-uh, not Ms. Heathrow's little boy Edgar! I'm sure there have to be some perfectly nice people in State Security. It's just that I've never met any of them . . . and somehow I doubt I'd run into them among the garrison of a top secret, maximum security prison!

He chuckled at the thought, then stirred as Howard spoke again.

"Message dump complete, Sir."

"Was there any 'reply expected' code on the message queue?" Heathrow asked.

"Uh, yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir. I should have reported that already. I didn't—"

"When I think you need chewing out, Irene, I'll chew you out all on my own," Heathrow said mildly. "Until that happens, take it a little easy on yourself."

"Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir." Despite her thanks, the citizen ensign's face was still red, and Heathrow shook his head. He'd been twenty-two once himself, he was sure. He simply didn't seem to remember when it had been.

But the important thing was that at least some of the traffic he'd just delivered to Hades—whatever it had been—required an immediate response. That was unfortunate. It might mean he and his crew had to hang around for several hours, or even a day or two, waiting while Dirtside got its act together. With no idea of what had been in the encrypted message files, he couldn't even make an estimate of how long he might be hung up. Not that there would have been anything he could do to shorten the time requirement even if he'd known what it was, he thought with a mental sigh.

"Is anyone down there asking us to receipt anything?" he asked, trying not to sound too hopeful that no one was. After all, it was possible some regular SS courier had just happened to wander by and deal with the problem before he got here. That wouldn't be asking too much, would it?

"No, Sir," Howard told him, and he started to smile. But then the citizen ensign went on. "They have transmitted a request to hold while they read the traffic, though."

"Great," Bouret muttered under his breath, and Heathrow heartily endorsed the astrogator's disgusted tone. God only knew how long it would take for Groundside to read its mail and then record a response.

"Well, there's nothing we can do about it except wait," he said as philosophically as possible, and leaned back in his command chair.


Lieutenant Commander Geraldine Metcalf tried very hard not to swear. She'd felt badly enough out of place as officer of the watch in Command Central without having the responsibility for this dumped on her shoulders! She'd already put in a call for Commodore Simmons, but he was halfway around the planet with Captain Gonsalves, interviewing people over a problem which had arisen at Beta Eleven, one of the camps to which they'd transferred the prisoners who intended to remain behind on Hell. Beta Eleven, unfortunately, was also one of the camps whose inmates had decided that as part of their proof that they'd had nothing to do with events on Styx, they didn't even want to be part of the "rebels" communications net. Which meant Simmons was out of immediate contact until someone from his shuttle crew got word—and a hand com—to him. . . and that the hot potato was all Metcalf's in the meantime.

She paced slowly up and down behind the operators' consoles, hands clasped behind her, and concentrated on looking calm while Anson Lethridge worked on decoding the message traffic. The homely Erewhonese officer had the com watch, which, up until—she checked the time display—eleven minutes ago, had been one of the more pleasant aspects of her present duty. The two of them had been seeing a good deal of one another lately, although they'd been careful not to go too far too fast in light of the provisions of Article 119. Of course, Article 119 didn't actually apply to Anson, since it was a purely Manticoran regulation, but that was a gray area they'd preferred not to get into. Not that they weren't both aware of how that was going to change once they could get out of the same chain of command and out from under 119's restrictions.

She knew some people wondered what she could possibly see in the brutish-looking Lethridge, but that was because they'd never bothered to look past the face at the man. Metcalf had, and—

"Oh, shit!" The soft expletive was almost a prayer, and she turned quickly as she heard it. Lethridge sat back in his chair, looking down at the lines of text glowing on his display, and she walked quickly towards him.

"What is it?"

"We've got a 'response required' message," he replied.

"What about?" she asked.

"They've missed Proxmire's courier boat," he said grimly, and she felt her face lose all expression.

"And?" Her voice was flat, impersonal, and Lethridge looked up at her quickly. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, discarding whatever he'd been about to say as he recognized the grimness in her dark eyes.

"And it's just about what the Admiral figured it would be," he said after a moment instead. "His next duty station's sent a routine missing ship inquiry up the line."

"Is this one his replacement?" Metcalf asked. It was unlikely, of course. If the new boat was carrying a shipping inquiry, then obviously someone expected it to report back instead of settling into orbit here.

"No." Lethridge shook his head. "There's an attachment to the inquiry, though—something about another message that explains why Proxmire's replacement has been delayed. It's listed as ... Alpha-Seven-Seven-Ten." He looked at the petty officer who shared his com watch with him. "Anything on that one, Alwyn?"

"Sorry, Sir. I'm still working through the queue directory. There's an awful lot of routine stuff in here—requests for reports, new regulations, all kinds of crap. Just looking at all of it is going to take a couple of hours, I'd guess, and I haven't started any actual decoding of the lower priority messages yet."

"Find it now," Metcalf directed, much more curtly than she'd intended to, and resumed her pacing as PO Alwyn called up message A-7710 and he and Lethridge dove into the task of decoding it.

She hadn't thought about Proxmire and his crew in months now. Part of her had felt almost guilty about that, but the rest of her had recognized it as a healthy sign that she'd finally accepted that she'd truly had no choice but to kill him and that it was time to put it behind her. But they never had located anyone on Hell who'd known exactly how long he was supposed to have the Cerberus courier duty, and Citizen Brigadier Tresca's sloppy com staff had never bothered to enter that information into their computers.

Once Harkness and his team had broken into the secured data they'd at least been able to check the records for how long courier boats were normally assigned to Camp Charon, but the information hadn't helped much. The duration of courier assignments tended to be erratic—in some cases, the records suggested, because assignment here was considered punishment duty, which meant that how long a crew had it depended on how seriously they'd pissed off their superiors. The shortest duration they'd found had been five T-months, and the longest had been just over a T-year and a half. They'd also been able to establish that Proxmire had been here for only three months, and they'd hoped that meant he'd had enough time left on his assignment for them to do what they had to do before someone came looking for him.

Only they'd been wrong.

"Got it!" Lethridge announced suddenly, and Metcalf found herself back beside his chair. "It says here—" the Erewhonese officer began, then paused in surprise as he looked up and discovered that Metcalf had somehow teleported herself across to him without making a sound. He blinked, then shook himself.

"It says here," he resumed with a slightly lower volume, "that Proxmire failed to check in with Shilo Sector SS for his next assignment. They sound concerned, but not terribly so; this is just a request that Camp Charon confirm that he hypered out on time. But it also says his replacement won't be here for another two T-months—which means he'll be almost four months late by the time he actually gets here." The Erewhonese officer smiled wryly. "Whoever drafted this message seems to've figured Tresca would be bouncing off the walls by now over the delay. He went to some lengths to explain the courier net's been all screwed up lately. Apparently StateSec doesn't have as many boats of its own as we'd thought. They seem to rely on Navy couriers a lot, but the Navy's been whipping their own boats all over the PRH to coordinate all the ship movements Citizen Secretary McQueen's been ordering."

"Well thank God for small favors," Metcalf muttered.

"Agreed. But that leaves the problem of what I tell this courier," Lethridge pointed out. "Should I go with the canned response?"

"Um." Metcalf frowned again, hands still clasped behind her, and bounced slowly up and down on the balls of her feet while she thought. It would have been so much nicer to be able to ask Admiral Harrington about it, but that was impossible for the same reason she couldn't ask Commodore Ramirez or Captain Benson: none of them were on Hell at the moment.

Ramirez and Benson were off reacquiring their command skills aboard Krashnark in company with the ex-StateSec light cruiser Bacchante, and Admiral Harrington had gone along to observe and possibly throw a few unplanned tactical problems at them. That was one reason Metcalf had designed the courier boat's inbound routing so carefully—to keep her well clear of the exercise area—and she hoped the CIC crews she and Senior Chief Ascher had been training aboard Krashnark had made use of the opportunity to run a passive plot on a live target. And that they weren't embarrassing their teachers.

Her mouth moved again, this time in a grimace. They were making enormous progress, but aside from about four thousand Manticoran and Grayson POWs, none of whom had been dirtside on Hell for more than five T-years, the best of their personnel were at least a decade out of date. Some of them, like Benson, were more like half a century out of date, and blowing that kind of rust off their skills required something on the order of an old-fashioned nuke. Of course, Benson was a special case, Metcalf admitted. The captain had a genuine gift—she might even be as good in the captain's chair as Admiral Harrington was reputed to have been—and her skills were coming back with astonishing speed. But a lot of the others were still pretty pathetic by RMN standards.

Which was the reason Metcalf prayed they wouldn't have to deal with any regular navy crews that approached the quality of, say, Lester Tourville's people. It would not be a pleasant afternoon in space if they did.

Now stop that, she told herself with absent severity. So far, things have gone better on the retraining front than you could ever have expected, now haven't they?

And so they had. Bacchante had come swanning along as innocently and unsuspectingly as Krashnark, and Warner Caslet had talked her skipper through the minefields and energy platforms just as smoothly as he'd talked Citizen Captain Pangborn through them. The actual capture of the ship had been a little trickier, since Bacchante had just stopped in for a little R&R and a broader selection of fresh vegetables. Since she hadn't been delivering any prisoners, finding a justification for sending multiple shuttles full of boarders up to meet her had been much harder. In fact, it had been impossible . . . but it hadn't been necessary, either. Citizen Commander Vestichov hadn't been able to surrender fast enough when the targeting systems of a dozen graser platforms locked his ship up at a range of less than twelve thousand kilometers.

And so the light cruiser had become the second unit of what Commodore Ramirez had christened the Elysian Navy. She was nowhere near as powerful as Krashnark, and Metcalf knew the Admiral had been tempted to turn her loose as a courier to the Alliance, but the lieutenant commander was grateful she hadn't. Having two ships with which to exercise against one another had increased the effectiveness of their quickie training program by at least a hundred percent.

And now the fact that we have two ships means the Admiral is off in one of them, and Commodore McKeon is off in the other one, and they've taken Ramirez and Benson with them. Which means I get to make the call on this, unless I want to drag Simmons into it. And I can't do that until they get him to the other end of a com link, and I really shouldn't shuffle the decision off onto him even then. Because the longer that boat sits up there, the more likely it is that something will blow up in our faces, isn't it?

"Dust off the stored response, Anson," she said, and to her own surprise, her voice sounded almost as calm as the Admiral's would have. "Transmit it, and let's get that boat out of here before its crew notices something they shouldn't."

"Yes, Ma'am," Lethridge said formally, his eyes showing his respect for how quickly she'd decided, and nodded to PO Alwyn. "You heard the Commander, PO. Let's send them on their way."

"Aye, aye, Sir."

The petty officer entered a command sequence on his board, and Metcalf watched a green light blink, confirming transmission of the stored message Admiral Harrington had ordered Harkness and Scotty Tremaine to create six months earlier. It wouldn't tell anyone at the other end anything very exciting—only that Proxmire and his crew had pulled out on schedule for their next destination. The message was from Camp Charon's chief com officer, courtesy of Harkness' computer generation efforts. The real com officer had hanged herself five months ago rather than face court-martial on charges of murder and torturing prisoners. Metcalf didn't quite understand the logic behind that, but in light of the evidence against her, she'd simply advanced the date of her demise by a few weeks without altering its manner in the slightest.

Thanks to Harkness, however, they hadn't really needed her, and now the message flicked up to the courier boat. The time and date stamp had been left blank when the message was recorded, but the computers automatically entered today's as they transmitted it. A little more worrisome was the fact that it didn't say where Proxmire had been supposed to go, since no one they'd managed to take alive appeared to have known what his next assignment was, and Metcalf was tempted to update the recording now that they knew he'd been supposed to go to Shilo. But that shouldn't be important enough to justify futzing about with the message and possibly screwing something else up. The people who'd sent the inquiry knew where Proxmire had been bound, and a simple "departed on schedule" ought to more than suffice.

"Message receipt confirmed, Ma'am," PO Alwyn announced, and Metcalf nodded.

"Anything else in the queue require an immediate response?"

"Nothing else," Lethridge told her. "Of course, we haven't opened most of the mail yet," he added.

"Understood. But I want that boat out of here ASAP, and if nothing else is marked urgent, no one's going to be upset if we don't answer it before we boot them out. Send the release, Anson."

"Yes, Ma'am."


"Message coming in from Charon Control," Citizen Ensign Howard reported. Heathrow turned his chair to look at her, but she was busy inputting commands at her console. Then she looked up. "One return transmission received and stored in the secure banks, Sir. No other return traffic or outgoing messages. We're cleared to depart."

"Flight plan information?" Bouret asked.

"Coming through now, Sir," Howard replied. "I'm dumping to your console."

"Got it," Bouret confirmed a moment later. He studied the vectors and accelerations displayed on his maneuvering plot, then made a small sound of mingled satisfaction and disgust. "Pretty straightforward, Skipper. We go back the way we came, for all intents and purposes, except for a couple of little dog legs."

"Dog legs?" Heathrow repeated with a raised eyebrow.

"It's just dirtside bullshit, Skipper," Bouret assured him—being very careful to use the spacer's generic term for planet-bound idiots rather than call the idiots in question StateSec. "They're just flexing their muscles. Citizen Commander Jefferies warned me they liked to do that when he gave me the system coordinates."

"All right." Heathrow sighed. "If that's the way the game's played here, then that's the way it's played. Are we cleared to head out now?"

"Yes, Sir," Howard said.

"And according to this, we can even use impellers, Skipper," Bouret told him.

"Oh frabjous day!" Heathrow muttered under his breath, and pressed a com stud on his chair arm.

"Engineering," a voice replied.

"They're going to let us have our impellers back, Andy," Heathrow said. "How soon can you have the nodes back on-line?"

"Give me seven minutes, and you're hot, Skipper," Citizen Lieutenant Anderson assured him.

"Good." Heathrow released the stud and looked back at Bouret. "All right, Justin, we've got reaction mass to burn, so let's get the hell out of here now. We'll transition to impellers as soon as Andy can bring them up."

"You got it, Skipper," Bouret said with fervent agreement, and began tapping commands into his console. Then he closed his hand on the joystick. "Coming about to new heading of one-seven-eight relative, same plane," he announced, and the courier boat quivered as her thrusters began to fire.

"And so we say farewell to sunny Hell," Heathrow muttered under his breath.


"Well, at least he made out better than the last one," Metcalf said softly to herself as she watched the courier boat's wedge come up. The little craft went scooting away from Hell, accelerating hard down the flight path that would take it well clear of the Admiral's exercise area, and she smiled crookedly. Those people had no idea at all of how close to annihilation they'd just come, she thought, and more power to them.

More than one person in the control center let out a sigh of relief as the boat headed outward. Of course, some of those present didn't, too. Not all of Admiral Harrington's people were happy with the thought of letting any ship depart, however unsuspicious it might appear to be.

Personally, Metcalf agreed with the Admiral, especially in this case. It was far smarter to let courier traffic in and out of Cerberus with the word that everything was normal there than it would have been to turn the system into a complete black hole. And that was a regular Navy vessel, not a StateSec courier, which meant its crew was much less likely to notice any little glitches which might have crept into the behavior of Camp Charon's new managers. For that matter, if they were like many of the officers Metcalf had met during her incarceration aboard Lester Tourville's flagship, they wouldn't want to learn any more about StateSec than they had to. Once upon a time, Metcalf had thought some of her fellow RMN officers took their traditional rivalry with the Royal Marines to ridiculous extremes, but even the worst of them had grudgingly conceded that Marines also belonged to homo sap. The People's Navy's jury still seemed to be out on that question in StateSec's case.

Her mouth twitched a wry smile, but she didn't mention the thought to anyone else.

Still, she admitted, if it hadn't been for that inquiry about Proxmire's boat, she might have been more inclined to argue for hanging onto this courier, regular Navy or no. Deciding to send an unarmed courier with neither the firepower for combat nor the life support for large loads of passengers to the Alliance would have been an easy call ... if they hadn't known someone was anticipating that courier's immediate arrival with the reply to that inquiry. The nearest piece of real estate they could be certain the Alliance would have held onto in the face of the Peeps new, aggressive stance was Trevor's Star, which happened to be a hundred and thirty-five-plus light-years from Cerberus. Even a courier would take over two weeks to make a voyage that long—more like twenty days, unless it wanted to play some really dangerous games with the iota wall in h-space— and that was for a one-way trip. If somebody who was closer than that—say a half-dozen or so light-years—was expecting the courier to come tell it about Citizen Lieutenant Commander Proxmire and it didn't turn up, then that somebody might just decide to come see what it was about the Cerberus System that was being so hard on the SS's mailmen. In which case they would almost certainly get here well before anything from Trevor's Star could.

"Got something else interesting here, Gerry."

She turned, pulled back out of her thoughts by Lethridge's voice, and raised an eyebrow. His tone was very different this time, and his expression could have indicated excitement, trepidation, anticipation, or a combination of all three.

"What is it?" she asked, walking back across the control room towards him.

"The computers just finished decoding the next message in the queue," he told her, "and it looks like we're about to have company."

"Company?" her voice was sharper, and he gave her a tight smile.

"Company," he confirmed. "The Peeps have hit the Alliance again. This time they took back Seabring, and it looks like they're going to try to hold it. They're planning to ship in a shit pot full of mines and energy platforms to thicken the defenses, anyway, and they need a lot of workers to put them on-line."

"And?" Metcalf encouraged when he paused.

"And StateSec has decided to temporarily 'rehabilitate' some of the politicals here on Hell. They're planning to stop by with a flotilla of transports and collect seventy thousand or so of them as a deep-space work force to emplace all that hardware for them."

"Transports?" Metcalf straightened, eyes bright. "Hey, that's great! Exactly what we need!"

"Sure," Eethridge agreed grimly. "Except that they're not coming alone."

"What do you mean?" Metcalf's brows furrowed as his tone registered.

"I said they were planning on holding the place, Gerry," he reminded her. "And one of the things they seem to be worried about is that the locals apparently preferred our occupation to the old management. So StateSec is sending in one of its major generals with the equivalent of two divisions worth of intervention battalions supported by full combat equipment, including battle armor, assault boats, and heavy tanks, to 'repacify' them if necessary. And since the entire force is being dispatched under StateSec control from their sector HQ at Shilo, they figured they might as well keep everything together so they could send it with a single escort force."

"You mean we've got two divisions of SS goons headed here?" Metcalf asked very carefully.

"That's exactly what I mean," Lethridge said flatly. "And they'll be arriving with an escort of StateSec battlecruisers and heavy cruisers."

"Sweet Jesus," Metcalf murmured prayerfully.

"I hope He's listening," Lethridge told her with a mirthless smile, "because we're going to need Him. According to the alert message, we can expect them within three weeks. And with that many senior SS officers all in one place, somehow I don't think they'd settle for long-range virtual handshakes with our cyberspace version of Brigadier Tresca even if they didn't expect us to be ready to hand seventy thousand slave laborers over to them!"


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