Chasing the Shadows

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CHASING THE SHADOWS


WARNING!! Spoiler Alert for Navigating the Stars!!


CHAPTER ONE
2522:190






"You're dead," Elese says as she presses her forearm against my neck, cutting off my air.

With no breath to speak, I slap my hand down on the mat. Hard. Probably harder than needed to concede the match, but, give me a break, at least this time I didn't panic.

Elese rolls off me and I remain prone on my back, gasping. The odor of hot sweat mixed with the funk of feet is a fine perfume to my starved lungs. I'm already well acquainted with the view of the bland cream-colored ceiling above the training room and it's only been eight days since my funeral.

Yes, you read that right. I officially died--killed by my ex-friend Jarren, the murdering looter--for about a minute before the good Dr. Edwards revived me. The funeral was to say good-bye to Lyra Tian Daniels and hello to Ara Yinhexi Lawrence--my snazzy new name. But I've gone almost eighteen Actual years being called Lyra so it's gonna take me quite a while to get used to it.

With a groan, I push up to a sitting position. Muscles unused to such activity ache in protest. Elese stands next to me. Her chestnut-colored skin contrasts nicely with her white--still very clean and dry--training uniform. Not a single short brown curl is out of place on her head. Unlike me. Most of my long hair has sprung from its braid. Black strands stick to the side of my face, which, despite my olive-colored skin, is probably dark red from exertion. And let's just say I'm damp in places better left unmentioned. Ugh.

Around us, a couple other off-duty security officers spar. Their grunts echo off the walls, two of which are covered in floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Yep, my face is red. Along the opposite side is a row of workout equipment. Bendix lifts weights. Figures. The muscular guy is about as wide as he's tall. Elese says she can toss his "fat ass" across the room despite the fact she's a hundred and seventy-seven centimeters tall--about ten more than me--and is lean. After seven days of working with her, I now believe she can do anything.

"What went wrong?" she asks me.

I consider the fight. "I blocked too wide, leaving my solar plexus unguarded." Rubbing my stomach, I remember her jab--not too hard as this is training after all. "Distracted with the need to breathe, I allowed you to get too close and you took me down."

"Yup. Classic rookie mistake. All right, on your feet, Recruit. Let's try again."

Rookie. Recruit. Newbie. Take your pick, I've been called all of them by various officers of Planet Yulin's security team. As the newest member, I take it in stride and hope it's a phase. It's a thin hope as all the team have nicknames.

"Once more." Elese sets her feet into what I now know is a fighting stance.

I face her, copying her posture. She attacks, I block. Or I try. In my defense, she has years of experience. This time I last a bit longer before she takes me down...again. I wonder if I could decorate the ceiling--maybe have Niall paint a mural.

"You need to keep your guard up," she says.

Talk about stating the obvious. I bite down on my sarcasm--she is trying to teach me--and climb to my feet.

"Let's work on your blocks." Elese faces me.

Overheated, I roll up the sleeves on my tunic, exposing arms covered with an assortment of colored bruises from dark red to muddy green and a few mat burns just to make it interesting. My legs and torso sport the same coloration. Sexy, I'm not. But, at least my stomach no longer twists with apprehension when I put on the loose cotton training pants and shirt. Progress.

I block her punches and kicks for hours. Okay that's an exaggeration, but at the end of a long day, I'm entitled. Training, I've learned, is repetition. Lots and lots of doing the exact same thing over and over and over again. Words like "muscle memory" and "instinctual reactions" are drilled into my mind and body. I understand why. After spending eight hours a day in the training room, I've seen the other officers also come in each day and work out for a couple hours to keep their skills sharp. Plus this will probably save my life someday.

And that's the kicker right there. Jarren is still somewhere out there. He could be anywhere in the Milky Way Galaxy or he could be hiding right on Yulin. Yeah, we've no idea. Scary right? He might figure out that I didn't stay dead and come back for me. Which will endanger all the scientists on the base as well as my new family--the security team.

He already killed Officer Menz, but I'm determined that he's not getting anyone else so I'm gonna train hard, lay low, and not attract attention. Don't laugh. I am capable of...oh, all right. I admit, it's killing me not to entangle with the Q-net and hunt him and his looter thugs down. Happy now?

"That's enough for today, Recruit. Read chapters eight through ten in the security handbook tonight. See you tomorrow at oh-eight-hundred." Elese gives me a jaunty wave.

The security handbook is actually rather interesting. It has lessons on how to deal with criminals, how to read body language, how to decipher a crime scene, etc... Elese and I discuss these lessons the next day between practice bouts.

I chug water as I navigate the hallways. The biggest downside of being "dead" is not being able to leave this section of the base since only my parents and a few others know I'm still alive. The perks are that I don't have to attend socialization time, no more required school work and I can walk around without an escort. I fought for that last one.

The Chief of Security and my new boss, Tace Radcliff, is rather overprotective and paranoid. Good qualities for a security chief, but I argued, since the other officers don't have a partner--his word for bodyguard--with them constantly, I don't need one either. Plus the camera feeds in the security area have been put on a special closed loop, meaning they're not connected to the Q-net so no one can worm into them. Only the security officer on watch can see what's going on.

If my partner could be Niall, his son, then I'd reconsider. However, Officer Radcliff seems determined to keep us too busy to do more than cuddle on the couch after dinner, which usually ends up with one or both of us sound asleep.

Entering housing unit three-oh-one, I pause and breathe in the heavenly scent of garlic and tomatoes. Radcliff might be a pain in the butt, but the man sure can cook especially when you consider the poor and artificial quality of the ingredients--we are on an exoplanet quadrillions of kilometers from Earth--or fifty thousand light years if that helps you picture it better. Space is big. Really big.

And the fact he spends the time feeding me and my parents despite being crazy busy also goes in his favor. After all, there are sixteen looters confined in detention and armed shadow-blobs in the Warrior pits. Oh, excuse me...Hostile Life Forms (HoLFs). Lots going on. You can read a detailed report in Q-cluster 978-1489-2527-46 if you're so inclined.

I hurry through the living area, bypass the kitchen and duck into the washroom before Radcliff orders me to set the table. Showering is the priority. Once clean and dressed in jeans and one of Elese's hand-me-down T-shirts, I emerge from my room. Yes, I'm still living with Radcliff. My parents insisted I stay here until I turn eighteen A-years old. Plus there's no Q-net terminal in the room so I won't be tempted. Although I think my mom's more worried I'll be more tempted by Niall than the Q-net if I had my own unit. And she would be right. Not that I'll ever tell her.

Radcliff glances at me as I grab the stack of plates. After spending forty days living with him, I'm somewhat immune to his glowers. He's close to my parents' ages--mid-forties--with bristle-short black hair that's streaked with gray. Broad shoulders and a solid muscular build, Radcliff looms over me by a good twenty centimeters.

My parents arrive and I'm squished between them. They've been rather clingy since I died. Guess I can't blame them. They watched Jarren shoot me, and if it wasn't for Menz's quick action, I'd be ashes. The parent sandwich doesn't last long. The smell of food entices my dad over to the oven, but my mom remains.

Examining my expression with her mom X-ray vision, she says, "You don't look as tired today. How did training go?"

"My bruises have bruises." I joke...sort of. Looking at my mother is like staring into my future. I inherited her straight hair, coloring and eye shape, except mine are hazel while hers are brown. She appears younger than her forty-four A-years, which I'm hoping is also in my DNA. "Elese pinned me a hundred times at least." I huff.

Mom presses a hand to her chest. "You mean you're not going to become a super woman overnight?" She tsks. "Such a disappointment."

"Ha ha." Normally, I have to endure my dad's lame humor. I'm not sure I can handle it from both of them.

"Do I need to remind you how many years it took you to become proficient at reconstructing the Warriors?"

"No lectures, please."

"All right, but because of your experience, you're the only one I trust to finish putting the General back together. That is when we can get back into the pits." She presses her lips together. Her stiff posture radiates frustration.

I understand all too well. We time jumped fifty-years into the future to travel to Planet Yulin so my parents, the archeological Experts (the capital is not a typo) could study the ancient Chinese Terracotta Warriors buried in sixty-four pits underneath Yulin's desert. Only four pits had been uncovered before looters arrived. They stole hundreds and destroyed the rest. Then the shadow-blobs appeared--and attacked us--they're not called hostile for nothing. The pits were sealed for everyone's safety.

When the unit's door opens to admit the last of the guests, my mom takes over setting the table so I can greet him in semi-private.

Niall waits for me in the living room. He's not in his security uniform, nor am I, which means I'm allowed to wrap my arms around his neck, go up on my tiptoes and pull him close for a hello kiss. He responds, deepening it as his hands press on my back. Warmth spreads through me and tingles dance along my skin. With parents in the next room, our kiss is unfortunately short.

Still holding me tight, he rests his forehead on mine. "Hi, Mouse."

"Toad." That earns me a tired laugh.

Poor guy's been working long hours since Jarren's attack. All of the security officers have been. There are dark smudges under his blue-green eyes.

"Dinner," his dad calls from the kitchen.

Niall sighs. "How long until you're eighteen?"

"One hundred and twenty-four days."

"That's one hundred and twenty-three days too many." Releasing me, he grabs my hand and tows me into the kitchen.

The conversation limps along with stilted small talk. It's odd and I wonder if this is normal or if it's because this is the first meal where I actually have enough energy to pay attention. By half way through, I suspect there's a topic that the adults are dancing around. And my instincts tell me that I'm not going to like what they really wish to discuss.

I meet Niall's gaze and raise my eyebrows. Does he know? A small shake of his head. But at least he confirms I'm not crazy.

Interrupting the fascinating discussion about the research base's air filters, I say, "All right, spit it out."

Mom exchanges a glance with my dad. They do that silent communication thing as Radcliff's expression remains neutral. Too neutral, which worries me more.

Finally my dad says, "Officer Morgan has been working with the astrophysicists to create a light weapon that might affect the HoLFs."

So far so good. "And?" I prompt.

"And they need more information that only you can provide," Radcliff says.

Ah. Makes sense since I'm the sole person in the base who can actually see the shadow-blobs...er...HoLFs. So why the hesitation? Unease gnaws on my stomach. "You need me to go into the pits?"

"No," my parents and Radcliff say in unison. Impressive.

"Nothing so drastic," Mom says.

"Not yet," Dad mutters, but clamps his mouth shut when my mom glares at him.

"Not at all." Mom's grip on her fork is so tight, I expect it to bend in half.

Radcliff interrupts. "We discussed this and the best way is for you to talk to the scientists directly."

Which means more people knowing I'm alive. "How many?"

"Two and I'll ensure they keep your status secret."

Not an idle promise. Radcliff threatened to tear Jarren, the murdering looter, apart with his bare hands if he harmed me. I would have been flattered if I wasn't terrified out of my mind at the time.

"All right, I'll talk to them."

"Are you sure?" Mom asks because that's what moms do.

"Of course. If those shadow-blobs find a way out of the pits, then we're going have more to worry about than Jarren returning."

A tense silence follows as everyone is no doubt remembering Planet Xinji. Looters raided the pits, stealing and destroying Warriors. Soon after the attack, the planet went silent. No communications and no signs of life. The entire population of the research base dead--killed by HoLFs.

When the shadow-blobs appeared in our pits after a similar raid, I speculated that the Warriors were protecting us from the HoLFs and, when they were broken or stolen by the looters, the Warriors could no longer do their job. Let's just say the others are skeptical about my theory.

At least they believed me about the invisible-to-them blobs...eventually. It took an attack where Beau almost died and bunch of us were injured for them to trust me. As to why I'm the only one who can see them, I think it's because I touched a Warrior Heart. We found these lifelike human hearts crafted from a strange black material in a factory below the pits. Despite a lifetime of knowing better--sorry again Mom--I picked one up. Or I tried. The heart disintegrated into nothing as an icy cold stabbed my hand and traveled up my arm. My explanation about my superpower hasn't been met with much enthusiasm either.

"When do you want me to talk to the astrophysicists?" I ask. Then a more important question pops to mind. "Does this mean I can leave security? Oooh, I can dye my hair blonde and wear a disguise!"

"You can't risk being recognized, Ara," Radcliff says.

Killjoy.

"They're coming to my office at oh-seven-hundred tomorrow." He gives me an evil little grin. "Don't worry, you won't miss training."

Uncomplimentary thoughts whirl, but I wisely keep them to myself.

"Do you want us to be there as well?" Mom asks me.

Nice of her not to add "in case you freak out" in front of the Radcliffs. "I'll be fine, Mom." Besides, I prefer to have my freak outs in private.

The rest of dinner is more...normal--for lack of a better word. My mom pulls me aside before she leaves with a let-me-know-if-you-change-your-mind talk. I refrain from rolling my eyes.

After dinner's cleaned up, Niall and I collapse onto the couch. Radcliff goes into his bedroom to work. He shuts the door, giving us the illusion of privacy.

Niall drapes his arm around my shoulders and tucks me close. I rest my head on his chest, breathing in his unique scent of sage grass and soaking in his body heat. The tension flows from my sore muscles. For a while, we're content to just sit.

"I'll be watching the cameras tomorrow morning until oh-eight-hundred if you need me," Niall says.

I groan. "Not you, too."

"Can you blame us?"

"No."

He chuckles. It's a deep masculine sound that vibrates against my cheek. "Can you say that without sounding grumpy?"

"No."

He waits.

"I just need everyone to stop being so...careful with me. If Elese invites me over for a sleepover one more time, I'll..." The proper description fails me.

"Why is that bad?"

"It's her cure for PTSD."

He leans forward. "Do you--"

"No. I've no symptoms."

He studies me. "Maybe she's just being friendly."

"Well after eight hours of her torturing me, I'm not inclined to spend my free time with her. I'd rather spend it with you."

"I can't argue with that." He closes the distance between us.

I tilt my head back as his lips touch mine. Fire ignites in my core, burning away all my peevishness. Instead my world fills with Niall. The minty taste of him on my tongue, the smell of his shampoo and his hands under my shirt, caressing my skin. I straddle him. He reaches higher and sucks in a breath.

Breaking away, he stares at me. "You're...not wearing..."

"My ribs are sore."

Niall closes his eyes. "You're making it very difficult for me to be the sensible one. My father..."

We both glance at Radcliff's bedroom door. I sigh and sit next to him.

He takes my hand. "On my next day off, we'll have another proper date."

I squeeze his fingers. "That would be lovely." I wait a beat. "What are the chances of you getting a day off?"

"Ah...well, what's that expression...? It's the thought that counts."

It does. But it's too bad that the eleven people comprising the security force are not enough. Then again, no one expected shadow-blobs and murdering looters at a scientific research base on the edge of Explored Space. A Protector Class ship is enroute, but it's going to take another year and a half for it to arrive.

"How are the techs doing?" I ask. Since the pits are closed, Mom lent Radcliff her idle techs to help with security.

"About what you'd expect with a group of people who have no interest in anything other than archeology."

"That good, eh?"

"We set up another monitoring station on the other side of the base. All the guys have to do is watch the camera feeds. I found them both asleep. It was the middle of the day. And none of them want to guard the entrance to the pits."

"You can't blame them. That's ground zero if the shadow-blobs escape. Plus in the pits they were...er..."

"Useless when we were attacked?"

"I wouldn't say that. They did help carry Beau. It saved his life."

"I guess." He grudgingly admitted.

"Then let's hope the astrophysicists can develop a weapon to counter the blobs and everyone can go back to normal." Except me. I'll have to find a new normal.

Niall yawns.

"You better go. You have to be up at oh-so-early."

He groans, but stands. I walk with him to the door.

Facing me, he says, "And you have an early day as well."

That's right. I do. "I'm actually looking forward to it."

"Really?"

"Yeah." The truth. "New faces. Something to think about other than keeping up my guard. A change."

His gaze grows distant. "I never thought about it that way."

"About what?"

"You had more freedom when you were on probation."

True. I shrug. "I'm not going to complain. I like having a heartbeat."

A slow smile softens the angles of Niall's face. "And I enjoy affecting the pace of that heartbeat."

"Oh?"

He draws me in for a kiss. A deep passionate kiss that sends bolts of heat all the way to my feet. Pushing me against the wall, his rakes his fingers through my hair as his other hand strokes the side of my breast through the T-shirt. All sensations increase by an order of magnitude.

Way too soon Niall slows then stops. Good thing he's supporting me or I'd topple over.

He presses his fingertips to my neck for ten seconds. "Pulse rate one-twenty." Then he whispers in my ear. "I'll do better next time."

Oh my stars.

"Good night, Mouse."

"Night." My voice is rough, which earns me a smug grin. I lean on the wall for a long while after he leaves.

#


I enter Radcliff's office at oh-seven-hundred. Two familiar women wearing science chic--lab coats over nerdy jumpsuits--sit in front of his desk. But Officer Morgan and not Radcliff is behind it. Morgan's the same age as my mother, about my height and has super short blond hair. I noticed that all four female security officers have short hair, although none as...buzzed as Morgan's. Good for them. I remember Niall's fingers entwined in my hair and there's no way I'm cutting mine no matter how unruly it gets during training.

Instead of wearing my training uniform, I dressed in the everyday security uniform--a light gray long-sleeved polo shirt with black tactical pants and black boots. I've a belt and holster. Except for a flashlight, I don't have a weapon. Not yet. However, I now have Lawrence embroidered over my left breast right under the word security. ‘Cause the uniform might not be obvious enough. Sheesh.

Morgan introduces me to the lady with her hair pulled into a messy bun. "This is Dr. Roberta Carson."

She extends her hand. "Call me Bertie." There's a spark of amusement in her brown eyes.

I shake it as if I've just met her.

"And this is Dr. Zhang Yenay." Morgan nods to the woman whose shoulder length black hair is thick and glossy. I'm so gonna ask her what shampoo she uses.

"Yenay," she says, pumping my hand once before letting go.

"And this is Junior Officer Ara Lawrence," Morgan says.

"Uh...call me Ara," I say. This is weird. I've nodded hello to both these women dozens of times in the hallways of the base. They're in their early thirties--I think.

"All right, let's get started," Bertie says. She sits at the visitor terminal--my name for it since Radcliff has another terminal at his desk, which Morgan accesses. Yenay stands behind Bertie.

The terminal is a plain plate made of a rare metal and built into a desk. Rather underwhelming considering it's the gateway to the Quantum net or Q-net for short.

I press my hands to my sides. The desire to insert my entanglers pulses through me. It's been twenty days since I accessed the vast scientific wonder that is the Q-net. Invented back in 2066, it changed our world. New technology developed, including the Bucherer-Plank Crinkler engine that allows us to travel across immense distances in space in seconds, giving all the countries on Earth a reason to unite and they formed the Department of Explored Space (DES) that uses the Q-net for...everything.

Bertie brings up a file on the screen above the desk. It's labeled HoLFs and there's not much data. "Please describe the alien creatures," she says to me.

This ought to be interesting. "They resemble shadows. But they move as if they're made of liquid and they're...translucent. They float and seem to have no mass. I call them blobs because they remind me of those amoebas. They can grow as big as two meters and will form...appendages--lots of them that solidify into sharp blades." I rub my left hip, thinking of the one that stabbed me. But it wasn't as bad as when they attacked Beau.

My description appears in the file. Alarmed, I ask, "How safe is it? Wormers can get to the file and might be able to connect it to me."

"Officer Dorey assured us it's well protected," Bertie said.

Beau is good, but I'm better.

"And Jarren already knows we'll be trying to figure out a way to stop the HoLFs," Morgan says.

Still. "Mind if I take a look?"

Yenay glances at Morgan. "Is Ara authorized?"

I almost laugh. "I can go in without the Q-net recording my identity."

"Really? That's possible?" Yenay seems impressed.

"It's possible for Ara," Morgan says, giving the woman a pointed look. "But there's no need, Officer Dorey has established your new identity, Ara."

Swell. "I'd feel better skipping that part."

"All right."

Excited, I insert my tangs. The little round plugs fit right into my ears. They, along with the sensors implanted in my brain allow me to access the Q-net. You have to be next to a terminal, though. To entangle with the Q-net more than twelve-hours can lead to insanity. Nice, huh? So everyone must be able to completely disentangle.

My consciousness flows into the Q-net. To me, it's like a universe-sized ball of yarn with zillions of layers. And I've learned how to squeeze and wiggle between those layers, entering data clusters and other secure areas. It's called worming and it's illegal unless you're doing it for a good reason--like hunting down murdering looters.

But this time, it feels like home. I ease into deeper layers as if sinking into a tub of hot water. Ahhh.

"Well?" Morgan asks.

Ignoring the temptation to descend to the star roads, I check Beau's protective measures. They'll do.

"Let's continue," Bertie says. "How does the light affect these beings?"

"They shied away from the beam or vanished."

"How close were they at that point?"

"About a meter to a meter and a half. When they closed in, I could make them disappear with the light."

"Disappear? Is that different than vanishing?" Bertie asks.

"Yes. Vanishing is like they moved out of the way too fast for me to see where they went. Disappearing is when I shone the light right into their core and they...poofed. It seemed more...drastic. And I don't know if it's permanent either. They could have reformed in the darkness."

"I see."

Too bad Bertie still sounds confused.

"What type of light?" Yenay asks.

I pull the flashlight from my belt and hand it to her.

She clicks it on. "It's not very powerful."

"Which is probably why they were able to get through our defenses. That and the fact we only had three."

"Do you know how they were able to turn off all the lights?"

"No, but I can guess they used their sharp blades to cut the wires."

"And the cameras," Morgan adds.

Quiet descends as the fact that the HoLFs are intelligent sinks in. It shouldn't be a surprise to me as I was there, but at the time it seemed as though I fought mindless shadow-zombies.

"We have the video of when you first saw them," Bertie says, breaking the tension. "Can I show it to you?"

There's that caution again. Morgan must have said something to them. I ignore it. "Sure."

The video plays. It's only a minute long, but Bertie stops it when I take a step toward the back wall of the pit. "Can you point out where the HoLF is?"

"Which one?"

She glances at me. "There's more than one?"

"There's five."

Stunned silence. Clearing her throat, she says, "Okay. Can you point them out?"

Yes, but what good would it do? They can't see them. I consider the problem. Maybe I could outline them, but I'd need to go deeper. Various possibilities pop into my head.

"I've seen that look before," Morgan says. "I'm not going to like this, am I?"

I explain. "I'll keep everything...quiet. It's low risk."

"On one condition."

I wait.

"That Officer Dorey trails you."

"Fine."

Beau is summoned and Bertie relinquishes her seat to me when he arrives.

"Keep everything on the screen," Morgan orders. "And if Dorey tells you to back off, you listen."

"Yes, sir."

I meet Beau's gaze.

His brown hair is spiked and the ends are dyed yellow, which is the reason everyone calls him Hedgehog. Mischief sparks in his amber eyes, but he inserts his tangs and says, "Let's go."

I worm through a few layers, easing into the gaps without causing ripples that would alert others. It's easier than I remember. And the intricacies of the Q-net are sharper, brighter, and bigger. Odd. Perhaps it's because I haven't entangled with the Q-net in twenty days. I've accessed it at least once every day since my sensors were implanted when I was ten A-years old.

Beau stays close to me as I navigate. A pang vibrates in my chest. It's just like old times, when we worked together plugging DES's security holes. I missed it. Who knew?

Taking the video file, I drag it down to my Q-cluster. It's hard to explain--nothing is anyone's in the Q-net. As long as you have the proper clearance, you can go as deep as the star roads. But this particular cluster responds to me. I know, sounds crazy and I did have a concussion when I discovered it. Time to see if it still recognizes me.

I've woven a tight security net around it and it appears intact. Once inside, I stretch the video like taffy around me, pulling it until each second is visible. The effect is similar to a panorama photo. The entire sequence of events can now be seen.

"Damn, girl," Beau whispers.

Pride swells. It's hard to impress him. Focusing on the task at hand, I concentrate on one shadow-blob at the beginning of the clip and think about outlining it. The Q-net follows my instructions and a shape forms. Still a blob. Then I move to the next second and repeat. It's tedious. And perhaps stretching the time into sixty seconds wasn't my best idea. I finally finish and start on blob two.

Except after I outline the second one, the Q-net takes over and does the remaining fifty-nine seconds.

"Stars, girl," Beau says. "What the fu--"

"This cluster likes me," I say.

I pick out number three and whoosh. Same with four and five. Both finished in a blink of an eye. Astonished, I'm speechless.

Beau gapes at me. "Was that real? Did I just see that?"

"Yeah." My voice is rough.

"See what?" Morgan demands.

I turn toward her. "The Q-net..." Still overwhelmed, words fail me.

"The Q-net," she prompts.

"Recognized the shadow-blobs."

Worldwide Release Date: November 18, 2019


You can pre-order CHASING THE SHADOWS online at these Australian retailers [Rest of the World links coming soon!]:

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