Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

IN THE COURTS OF THE CRIMSON KINGS

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER SIX:

 

Encyclopedia Britannica, 20th Edition

University of Chicago Press, 1998

 

MARS: Impact of Martian Tembst on Earth

 

Science has learned much from Venus, particularly about the history of life on Earth. It was studies of Venusian life and the remarkable adventures of Ranger Marc Vitrac (see Cloud Mountain People, Lords of Creation/Ancients) that established beyond doubt that both Mars and Venus were originally terraformed and seeded with Terrestrial life, including various hominid species and our own, by aliens with a technology advanced beyond our comprehension. The one alien artifact recovered by Ranger Vitrac has been endlessly analyzed with absolutely no result. (see Diadem of the Eye).

However, it was on Mars that we found a biological science surpassing our own but enough like it to be readily accessible to us. Although much Martian knowledge had been lost in the fall of the planetary empire of the Crimson Dynasty, many of their creations remained, including biological tools which used tailored enzymes and forced-evolutionary mechanisms for producing new microorganisms of astonishing capabilities on demand. This technology—which could be easily shipped interplanetary distances, since it bred of its own accord—has provided us with the genetically engineered organisms which in the past decade have had a profound impact on Terrestrial economies and societies.

The earliest and most significant of these were the ability to quickly and inexpensively transform any biomass into hydrocarbon products such as petroleum, the similar products which concentrate and sort wastes (even heavy metals) into easily-processed raw materials, and the engineered yeasts which cheaply desalinate water. Further developments...

 

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The Lost City of Rema-Dza

Mars, May 18th, 2000 AD

 

The sandstorm that had peeled back a little more of the fabric of life on Mars had blown itself out at last, or mostly, retreating into the vast, empty deserts to the east. You couldn't say the air was fresh, exactly; it was dry and cold and that was all, but it did have a lot less finely-divided dust in it, and didn't make you feel as if you were suffering from black lung by the end of the day. Jeremy whistled happily as he ducked out of the Traveler and slogged through the dust to the building that was their access to the tunnels. The De'ming had cleared a fair space around the door, and he could open it without a torrent of reddish powder pouring in along with him.

Sally Yamashita was sitting in front of her portable, eating to'a from a bowl with a spoon while she studied the screen. The dish was flaming-hot, a sort of curry of meat and nuts and dried fruit over groats made from asu, which tasted like nuggets of sweet potato. The spice was all to the good, since the meat was from the feral engines they'd killed, made edible with a tenderizer that was one of the staples of Martian cooking. When you cooked it enough, engine-meat just tasted gristly-tough and a little fishy, sort of the way squid did in badly overdone calamari. The pots simmered on a heating element on the stone bench, filling the room with the spicy-rich scent.

Jeremy was still whistling as he went over and ladled himself a bowl and took a round of flatbread. His bowl was one of a pair, twice the size of the ones the crewfolk used; Martians found the scale of Terran appetites for food and water astounding, amusing, and sometimes revolting.

"Looks like they've found something," he said.

"You think this was the sanctum sanctorum?" Sally said.

She pointed to the screen, which showed a stretch of corridor two hundred yards beyond the chamber where they'd fought the feral engines.

"Very probably," he said, then blew on a spoonful of to'a and put it in his mouth.

"Errrrk!" he said, though he'd been raised on jalapeņos. "Who made this today?"

"I did," Sally said dryly. "I was trying to fool my tastebuds into forgetting what's in it, like lots of wasabi on not-too-fresh sushi."

Even a native New Mexican would consider this hot—by comparison, the most potent carne asada was like peach yoghurt. Still, that did hide the taste of the other ingredients. A to'a could be a noble dish, but you didn't expect to eat like an epicure on a dig, and he really didn't like remembering those organic whips coming down out of the dark.

He tapped the screen, bringing up his own research studies. "See, it's to the right of the axial spine of the tower—"

"Right facing which way?"

"Facing the Mountain—Mons Olympus, Dvor Il-Adazar. They used that as their orientation point until nearly the end of the Imperial era, before they shifted to a north-south-east-west, I think because of some political dispute. You can tell from the layout of this place they were still using the old system when it was built. And there's a nice, short connecting tunnel through here. That would be the proper orientation for a treasure vault. If you think Martians today are fanatics about doing things in proper form, the old Imperials..."

She made a sympathetic noise and he rolled his eyes. "What you'd expect for a bureaucracy dating back to the Paleolithic."

"I think you may be right," Sally said meditatively. "Despite the way you're making a complete idiot of yourself."

He felt himself bristle and then forced a smile. "Yes, Mother."

"It's not you walking away with a broken heart I'm afraid of—fuck your heart, Wainman, and your overactive dick, too..."

She sighed, and exhaled in a long, exasperated sound. "Look, I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry. I do care that you're letting yourself in for a world of hurt. But I care about the mission even more."

Jeremy felt his indignant bristle gave way to a flush. "I'm doing my job. And... I appreciate your concern, but it isn't your job to be my keeper."

"Yes, it is. Why do you think they sent me? Get the stuff. That's your job."

"Why do you think I'm not doing it properly?"

"Because you're introducing unpredictable emotions into the mix. Martians act about the same way we do when it comes to profits and bargains—some of them are more honest than others, but that's true in San Jose, too. They don't act the way we do all the time in their personal lives, and I've been here long enough to see that's not just doctrine, it's the Buddha's own truth."

"There have been plenty of relationships—marriages, too, like Vitrac and his cave princess—with locals on Venus."

"With human locals on Venus, not the other varieties. Coming into a relationship from a different culture is bad enough—ask my grandmother—but Martians are not h. sap. sap. even if Tab A fits. Not quite. They don't have exactly the same instincts we do."

"So?" Jeremy said with heavy patience.

"So you don't know when you're suddenly going to be hitting some landmine. Keep it simple, keep it at the level of conscious explicit thought and formal communication, and you're safe... well, safer. Getting in this deep—"

He thought she used the phrase with malice aforethought.

"-is an invitation to a sudden explosion." More gently, "Why do you think they usually insist on married couples at Kennedy Base?"

"Why, Sally, I didn't know you cared," he said, batting his eyes. She'd been a widow since a week after the arrival of the First Fleet.

Sally rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. "I give up," she said in an obvious lie.

"And I'd better get to work."

He finished the bowl, scoured it out with sand, tapped the screen again, and waited while the little machine spat out three pages of diagrams. Then he rolled them up, took a biscuit from an open box near the camp-stove, bit into it—quite nice, dusted with something that resembled cinnamon and filled with a nut that tasted like coconut and cream, and unlike most Martian baked goods, not too salty—before he passed through into the tunnels.

There were more lights now, and each long section had one of the crewfolk standing with a dart-rifle. A slight tang of coppery molluscian blood remained in the chamber where they'd fought, and a slighter one of decay, but as they'd noted there were bugs in the sand, and they were efficient scavengers. They'd gotten almost every scrap of blood and flesh left over from the fight.

You really wouldn't want to lie down here for a long nap.

Beyond that, the newly-excavated section of passageway was half-filled with sand and he had to walk crouching past a staircase whose entrance had been covered with a section of sailcloth tacked to the wall with glue to keep the sand that filled it from getting ahead of the diggers; past it, he slid downward until he was only ankle-deep in the powdery stuff. A glow-globe gave bright light in the confined space and the six De'ming were busy there, stolidly shoveling dust into a box on a sled and then hauling loads back to be distributed in the big chamber. He coughed as he breathed in a little of the finely-divided material.

Teyud, her headdress back in place, turned from the door and gave him a smile. One that actually parted the lips. He felt as if there was a breath of warmth in the constant chill of the dead city. He returned it, deliberately turning down the wattage so it wouldn't look impossibly exaggerated to her—she was making the same effort for him, from the other side of the teeter-totter.

If we're both willing to work at it, I think we can make a go of this.

Baid ignored the byplay—one thing nice about Martians was that the respectable ones considered openly showing inquisitiveness bad form—and continued an inch-by-inch examination of the door, shooing the magnifying glass she was using around with a finger.

The portal was a hard, fiber-bound black synthetic with the Tollamune sigil in the middle, and oval—twelve feet tall by six feet across at the widest point, which meant it was designed to swing on a hinge, rather than roll sideways. The handles molded into the surface meant that it was designed to open outward; probably the door itself was beveled to mate with its surround, so that pushing on it merely transferred the strain to the frame and then the solid poured stone of the foundations.

He touched it, and it felt massive, with that underlying solidity you only got with big blocks of masonry and things like bank vaults. The seal with the edges was good enough that there probably wasn't any sand in the chamber beyond.

"Yes," the engineer said, completing her examination. "The sensor is centrally located, below the Imperial symbol. Contemporary practice would put it to one side, near the hinge."

She took a small, heavy, edged tool from her harness and struck the surface three times. A plate swung down, hanging open from interior hinges at the bottom; it still swung freely after all this time.

Within was a shallow depression; looking closely, Jeremy saw that it was lined with some shiny, dark-brown substance.

"This would have been the identity sensor," she said.

Back home on Earth, they'd been talking about using DNA for identification for a while—they called it biometric ID—but apart from some forensics work they hadn't gotten around to it. It wasn't as if there were many places you had to check people's ID, after all. Not in the Free World, at least, where even passports were falling out of use; in the paranoid EastBloc you even had to show an identity card to get on a domestic flight. But this was the equivalent of a bank vault—or a secret lab at Los Alamos—so he supposed it made sense.

Hmmm. Or perhaps it was just their equivalent of a key and lock system.

"What's the actual locking mechanism?" he asked.

Baid shrugged. "This is quite old, and so might be nonstandard. In a modern system, it would be cylindrical bolts working by air pressure in matching holes in the door and in the jamb opposite the hinge. If it was a very redundant system, there would also be bolts in the wall above and below the door. It might be an active system, with the rods retraced when the mechanism was not activated. In that case—"

She tugged hard on the door, with as much effect as pulling at a fifty-ton boulder.

"-it would open. If a passive system, the sensor would open a valve to retract the locking rods. In that case, they are still in place, and cannot be moved because the pressure system is long decayed. I confess bafflement. This material is too refractory to be dissolved easily, and even a highly powered adamantium-tipped drill would require prolonged effort."

"Is there likely to be anything immediately behind the door?" Jeremy asked.

He was already wincing inside; this was tomb-robbing with a vengeance.

"No," Baid said. "Typically, there would be a section of corridor beyond the door."

She looked at Teyud, and the Thoughtful Grace nodded. "That was the usual pattern in the Imperial era as well."

"I have something that might... that with a reasonable degree of probability might... solve this problem," Jeremy said.

The Martians looked at him, doing that disconcerting double blink. He found it a bit less eerie after waking up for a while with an example beside him on the pillow. He went on:

"It's called plastique."

 

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The Martians all shook their heads and then twitched their ears rapidly, despite taking his warning and covering them while keeping their mouths open. Further back, the De'ming called out in thin-voiced distress until their handler gentled them down. Dust roiled against the lights, making it nearly as dark in here as it had been when the fought the engines. The others had the cloth of their headdresses pressed tight against mouth and nose; Jeremy and Sally had their masks and goggles on.

The slightly moistened air through the protective mask was a blessed benediction in Jeremy's tortured mucus membranes. Excitement made his mouth dry anyway, the way it had as a kid when he stayed up late on Christmas Eve, watching the candles of the Farolitos burn down in their brown paper bags on the eaves outside. Bit by bit, the dust drifted downwards, more slowly than it would have on Earth, and the air cleared until it was less of a bloody mist. Teyud managed to slide in ahead of him as they went into the tunnel.

Mindful of her duty, he thought, smiling a little before he snapped back into a hunter's alertness.

He was used to hunting things long dead.

The tunnel was still and silent, with only eddies in the dust, but it still seemed to ring with the force of the explosion, as if it had shattered not only the armored door but an unthinkable weight of time.

"Well, let's be sure it actually shattered the door, before we wax poetic," he muttered to himself in English.

It had, and into six or seven pieces, at that. The bio-ceramics Martians used were strong up to a very high breaking point. But when they failed, they failed. The man-thick door lay in ruins like a broken dish, with the remains of the wrist-thick locking bars among it like shattered sticks of candy cane.

Teyud stopped and touched the fallen door where the symbol of the Kings Beneath the Mountain was cracked in half. Her touch had a gentleness that surprised Jeremy. To herself, she murmured, "You held your post as long as you could, sentinel, and yielded only to entropy at the last, as we all must."

Then to Jeremy, in the imperative tense: "Assistance."

That made sense; they were far and away the strongest pair in the party. Careful of their hands despite the gloves, they gripped a chunk and pitched it backwards into the tunnel. The De'ming chattered softly for passage, loaded it onto their sled and dragged it away, as contented to do that as shovel sand, or to sit doing nothing. The rest followed, and then Teyud tossed a glow-stick in; the light didn't turn yellow, so the air inside must have been exchanged by the explosion.

She went ahead down a short stretch of corridor, then sheathed her sword and holstered her pistol. "This was the only entrance. The contents are undisturbed."

He thought he heard a little stress in her voice, a catch; he'd gotten better at reading it...

Well, I should, no? And it's a beautiful voice.

He shivered a little. There hadn't been many digs like this one in his brief career, though he'd been working on them since high school.

Well, there was that weird one in Arizona, he thought. That was... startling.

He followed her even as he mused, scooping up the glowstick and holding it up like a torch—it was faintly warm to his touch, like gripping something made of flesh.

"Madre de Dios!" he blurted—it wasn't often he fell back into his mother's language without intending to, but...

But this is justification in full!

It was another circular room, about thirty feet across. The light seemed almost painfully bright because the interior was lined with some white stone, almost crystalline in its purity and polished to a high gloss but faintly laced with streaks of crimson. It sparkled, too, from the gems set in intricate patterns in the ceiling, blue and crimson, diamond-white and tourmaline-yellow. In the walls were a spiraling row of niches; some held nothing but dust, or a scattering of rust-colored dust. Others held—

An enigmatic sculpture of some hard green stone, like a face and yet abstract as a snowflake; a diamond carved in the likeness of a striking Paiteng, its beak open in a scream. A sheet of crystal marked with the constellations—but of a sky quite different from the ones that looked down on Mars today, and almost as different as those that had shone on the coronation of the First Emperor. An atanj set in black jade and platinum, carved with a whimsical realism that made him long to pick it up. A stack of the parchment-like material that the Vermillion Rescript had been painted on; his fingers itched at the thought of the lost knowledge that might be on it. More items, and more...

And one thing that didn't seem to fit with the others at all. It was a helmet, but an openwork one, of slim rods that might have been silver if silver could have lasted so long without collapsing into tarnish. This still shone brilliantly, and it had a red jewel over the middle of what would be the forehead if anyone wore it.

"Uh-oh!" he muttered, taking a step backwards. "That's like the Diadem of the Eye from Venus. That's far too much like it. Oh, Jesus. Sally was right. There is an Ancient artifact here."

As he watched, the jewel began to glow; when he lowered the stick of illumination, the light more than made up for the loss, but its glow seemed to paint the chamber with crimson. The outline of the helm was too sharp, as if its existence cut into the world all around it, tearing slips in the fabric of things themselves. Time and space fractured along lines of weakness, like the slippage planes of a crystal breaking under stress.

Teyud took a step forward. The jewel flared more brightly yet.

"No!" Jeremy called. "Teyud, darling, don't!"

She moved like a sleepwalker, yet with all the light, powerful Thoughtful Grace precision. Then she took the helmet in her hands and raised it, lowering it over her head. The silver ran and moved, until the thing was a perfect fit, and then it seemed to blur, as if it were sinking into her flesh and bone.

The world vanished.

 

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Mars, City of Dvor Il-Adazar (Olympus Mons)

Hall of Received Submission

May 18th, 2000 AD.

 

In the Hall of Received Submissions, the two hundred and twenty-fifth of the Tollamune Emperors rose screaming from the Ruby Throne, drawing free the connection before it could obey his will. The thin, keening sound echoed from the vast hall's ceiling as blood ran from his nose and the small lesion on his neck. Within the depths of the crystal throne, shapes moved, not with their usual slow drift but with sharp, darting distress.

Then he collapsed backward. The Thoughtful Grace caught him before the frail bones could strike the uncushioned parts of the Throne; strong, gentle hands bore him backward. Others applied bandages of living skin that bonded with instant strength and wrapped him in a blanket that clung and hugged as it radiated warmth.

Before the Ruby Throne, a score more took stance, their black-armored bodies blocking the view of petitioner and courtier and bureaucrat.

"This audience is at an end!" their commander cried. "Go! Suppress speculation ungrounded in secure data! Go!"

As she spoke, the guards were in the antechamber behind the Throne, closing the door and laying Sajir down on the couch there; it purred and began to vibrate beneath him.

The physician in attendance withdrew a handful of colored segmented worms from his workchest, selected the ones he wanted and applied them. One tapped into the jugular and began to pulse as it injected drugs. Another crept up a nostril, sipping thirstily at the blood and rippling with colored bands. A helmet of smooth glassine filled with a pink, faintly pulsing jellylike substance went over the Emperor's head; the jelly spread, oozing into a thin, translucent film that settled over the monarch's skull and then showed patterns coded in blue, red and green.

"Disorganized neural function but no stroke," the healer said after a moment. "The Supremacy is suffering from severe shock, in synergistic interaction with longstanding general debility. The organism approaches its failure limits."

The guard captain came through the door in time to hear that. "Cardiac arrest?" she said.

"Heart function is thready and faint but regular, Superior Adwa sa-Soj, and improving. No known synthetic toxins present. Core temperature is depressed and there was a severe surge in blood pressure. I will administer stimulants and blood cultured from the Supremacy's banked stem cells. Recovery is highly likely, but a period of rest and freedom from stress is necessary."

Just then, the Emperor's eyes fluttered open. "Supremacy!" Adwa said anxiously. "Can you inform us? Is this enemy action?"

"Water," Sajir said.

He remained silent as he sipped, then stared upwards; the pupils of his yellow eyes were distended, and the nicating membrane flicked across them half a dozen times. Then the guard captain repeated his question.

"What has happened, Supremacy?"

"The foundations of existence shook," Sajir whispered.

 

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Washington DC, Earth

Smithsonian Institute—Living Planets Exhibition

May 18th, 2000 AD

 

In the Smithsonian Institute's Venusian room the Diadem of the Eye sat in the place of honor. The USASF guard—technically he was a corporal in Base Security—yawned as he walked by it with his assault rifle over his shoulder; the spotlight above kept it brightly illuminated even at night when the rest of the lights were dimmed. Invisible beams protected it, and the guard was careful not to approach too carefully; the alarm system was alarming in itself, and like his own presence was part of the price the USASF had demanded for turning over the device that had baffled Earth's best scientists for more than a decade.

Best scientists outside the EastBloc, he thought sardonically. Probably they'd like to give it a shot.

Having the only authenticated artifact from the Lords of Creation had been a big boost for the US and its allies. Not being able to tell Thing One about it hadn't helped, though. The big-domes weren't even sure if it was made of atoms. Nothing they could do to it affected it at all, short of strapping it to a nuclear weapon or throwing it into the Sun... and he'd heard that they weren't sure those would do anything either.

He looked through the glass of the case; there were pictures of lean, dark Marc Vitrac, the Ranger from Jamestown Base, and Teesa of the Cloud Mountain People, the Venusian hottie who'd originally held the Diadem as her people's high priestess-cum-princess. She was smiling, her snub-nosed, amber-skinned face surrounded by a long fall of sunlit blond hair against a background of huge Venusian flowers and a bee the size of his thumb. A whitewashed adobe wall was behind her, and a great, mottled, dog-like creature lay at her feet and looked suspiciously at whoever was taking the picture. Its teeth were finger-long, and barred in a warning snarl.

Unfortunately the picture showed her in a Terran-style housedress, not in the fur halter and g-string loincloth that were supposed to be her native costume, and she was carrying a young child—doing her Mrs. Vitrac thing, which interfered with fantasizing a bit. Unless you fantasized about being Vitrac yourself, adventurer on the High Frontier and husband of a beautiful princess he'd rescued from dinosaurs, Neanderthals, EastBloc conspirators and the Ancients themselves.

And it was a cute kid, too. The guard grinned to himself. He had three daughters.

"Guess that settled whether they were human or not," he murmured to himself.

Then he sighed. Like millions of others, he'd applied for the space program himself back in high school, and like all but a tiny percentage, he'd been turned down, despite being tall enough for Mars. All it had gotten him was a career in the USASF that was probably less interesting than his original intention to graduate Cal Tech.

He took a turn through the rooms, which were dim and smelled faintly of ozone, disinfectant and floor polish, past blowguns and stone-headed spears and flint hatchets and crude hand-axes, feather cloaks and bronze rapiers. The whole exhibit was devoted to the history of the exploration of Venus; one case held a seven-foot stuffed raptor portrayed in mid-leap, its sickle-clawed hind foot lashing out. Screens showed video of ceratopsians hauling logs and wagons around a building site, with humans seated on their necks and the little plastic hemispheres of the ICE machines on their foreheads showing how they were controlled by electrodes implanted in their brains.

Pictures showed more: street-scenes in Kartahown, the bronze-age city-state that was the planet's highest civilization; plesiosaurs attacking a sailing ship on an azure sea, their long necks looping down towards the deck; a sabertooth caught in mid-leap as it pounced upon a mastodon mired in a swamp...

That gave him an idea for a scene; he was trying to break into the adventure-fiction market. He shook his head as his belt-com beeped and the thought vanished; when he flicked it open it was the face and voice of his counterpart in the Martian section next door. Oddly enough, the other man was an aspiring teller of tales as well.

"Anything new, Harry?" the Aussie rasp said.

"Not a thing, John. Just walking and thinking."

He turned back as he spoke. Then the little comm unit dropped out of his hand, shattering on the hard marble of the floor, bits of plastic and microchip spraying. A pillar of silvery light stood where the Diadem had been. And it... sang.

Slowly he dropped to his knees, and his rifle clattered to the stone as well. The sound echoed inside his head, and he could feel the column expand—feel it passing through his face and body, like the breath of a cool wind inside him. The sound rose to a piercing note and vanished.

So did the lights. He fumbled at his belt and clicked on his flashlight. That worked. Unfortunately what it showed was an empty case—oh, the pictures were still there, and the little display screen with the background story running on a loop.

"Shit!"

But the Diadem was gone. The single most unique and valuable artifact on Earth, and it was gone. On his watch.

He was still cursing when he noticed the perfectly cylindrical hole that had been drilled through the ceiling, the floor above, and all the way through to the roof.

"Shit!"

 

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Venus, Gagarin Continent

Jamestown Extraterritorial Zone

May 18th, 2000 AD

 

"Dad! Dad!"

Marc Vitrac looked up from his papers. For a moment he frowned, and then the desperation in his son's voice turned the expression to a questioning one. It was late afternoon, with the sun sinking in the east across the walled garden outside the French doors, and the scents of the late-blooming roses drifted in along with cut grass and warm, unbaked brick. He'd been thinking of knocking off and making some jambalaya and dirty rice.

"What is it, eh, p'tit?"

Marc Vitrac Junior was twelve, shooting up taller than his father had been at that age and still all hands and feet and gawky limbs, bowl-cut hair a tawny sun-streaked mane.

"It's Mom."

Young Marc was trying to control his fear. His father didn't bother; he just dashed down the corridor to the nursery. Young Jeanette was lying in her crib, chuckling at the mobile of dinosaurs and flying things over it, but her mother was lying on the floor beside it, and her eyes had rolled up until only the whites could be seen, and she shook as if with palsy.

"Calisse!" he swore as fear went through his gut like icewater, dropping to his knees beside her.

Then she sighed, blinked, and shook her head, and when she opened her eyes again, the woman he loved was there again. But the look on her face wasn't one he was used to: it was raw fear.

"Teesa!" he cried, snatching her up.

The strong, slender arms went around him, tight enough to make him gasp a little. Then she drew back.

"It was the Cave Master," she said. "But... Marc..."

"Weh?"

"It wasn't as it was when I wore the Diadem and talked with It. It was... bigger. And it was angry."

 

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Copyright © 2006-2007 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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