The Watcher Of The VoidOctober 15, 2013
This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—
-- Emily Dickinson
“All we need is some fresh perspective.”
“That’s what I provide, Mr. Pierpont. The truth. Nothing less.”
“Who knew the truth could be so expensive...”
Henri Ducasse bit his lip. He hated when rich men complained about prices they could afford. His rates were actually quite reasonable --- especially for Mr. Pierpont. Ducasse had seen many nice offices in his line of work, but Pierpont’s palatial suite set a new standard entirely. It was as if all of Midtown Manhattan had been designed with this spot in mind. Beyond the window, the skyscrapers ebbed and flowed in glittering waves. Mr. Pierpont was a far less pleasant sight. He was fat and squat and red -- the Monopoly Man without the monocle. A cartoon capitalist, scratching at his chins and waiting for Ducasse to start asking questions.
“What is it that you need to know, exactly?”
“Look, we’ve given Dr. Speck everything. He’s made outlandish requests before -- a fusion reactor, two tons of gold. A mountaintop laboratory in the middle of nowhere! Anything he wanted, we delivered, no questions asked. But this time...he wants the impossible. It’s not the money that bothers us. Oh no, no. Money is of no concern here. We’ve poured hundreds of millions dollars into Speck’s research. And why shouldn’t we? He’s going to change the world. Once he’s succeeded -- and he will succeed -- you won’t even recognize this country. There won’t be any more airplanes or ships or trucks or roads. And my company will have so much money that --” Pierpont’s eyes glazed over, his hands trembled as he struggled to imagine just how much money he would have. “It’s not the money that bothers us. The problem is that it’s impossible. The Chinese will never agree to it. And Lockheed can’t build it alone.”
“What exactly has he requested?”
Dr. Speck awoke at his desk with a pen clutched in his hand and a smear of ink across his wrinkled face. He blinked mechanically, smoothed out the scroll he had crumpled in his sleep, and got right back to work. Lines after lines of calculus, filled with numbers large enough to confuse calculators, flowing out of Speck like a stream of consciousness. The scroll spilled out over his desk and emptied into a bottomless metal box. He had been working on the same equation for thirty-seven years.
Dr. Speck’s Assistant, Hank, entered the laboratory, careful not to knock the colossal telescope out of place. “How’s the equation going, Doctor?” Speck did not look up. He was working, and he was going to work. “I know I’ve said this a million times, but I’d be happy to help out with it. The equation, I mean. I could check for errors. I went to MIT, you know. I’m not just a janitor.”
Speck did not stop scribbling, but with one hand he flicked at an empty mug of coffee, a gesture that meant “more, now.” Hank picked up the mug.
“Mr. Pierpont called, by the way. He’s sending over some sort of liaison. The company has some questions about your most recent request. He’ll be here in three days. I’ll uh, I’ll pick him up in the helicopter.”
Suddenly, Dr. Speck paused. Hank wasn’t sure what to do --- was his existence about to be acknowledged? Was he finally going to get to check for errors? His pulse fluttered with excitement. Speck stared down at the last line he had written: ((10X^Y)^23), (8K^epx). He drew a thick circle around the formula. For a second, it seemed like he might smile.
Ducasse dressed in the dark, straightening his tie by the light of the TV. It was going to be a grueling trip, no doubt about it. A four-hour flight to Montana, a five-hour drive to the Absaroka Range, and then a helicopter ride to the summit of Mount Cowen. And then, of course, the meeting itself.
Ducasse was the best corporate liaison in the country. An information extractor, pointlessly handsome, with a radio voice and a sterling record of success. He had got Mr. Yolanda to confess to his Ponzi Scheme -- the largest ever discovered -- after seven minutes together in a steam room. He had realized that Governor Thompson was embezzling state pension funds just by watching the rhythm of his blinks at a fundraiser. And he had called his wife out on sleeping around mere seconds after she sat down at the dinner table. It was obvious, by the way she passed the asparagus.
A modern day Sherlock Holmes -- that’s how Ducasse liked to think of himself. His eyes were a spotlight on subtlety. He loved a good challenge and the thrill of the catch, but for the first time in his career, his self-confidence was failing. How the hell was he going to talk the truth out of this guy?
Ducasse had spent days investigating Dr. Speck and had turned up almost nothing. He rarely spoke to the press, and when he did it was nothing more than a few monosyllables, spoken in a monotone so flat it made Stephen Hawking sound animated. Ducasse found it easiest to read people by their tone -- that would be impossible with Dr. Speck. Worse yet, the man had no history. It took Ducasse three hours to find out where he went to college. He had set aside a fortune to bribe Speck’s college friends for information. But Speck had no friends. He didn’t even have acquaintances. Most of his Professors were dead, and the ones who weren’t had precious little to share. Speck had no previous employer. He began his research just a few days after graduation.
Still, all was not lost. Ducasse had some obscure details to work with. The trick was usually to get a rise out of the client --- just get them to show a hint of raw emotion, and then, exploit it. Infuriate, intoxicate, confuse, whatever needed to be done to expose the nerves for plucking. The truth always set itself free. At the end of the day, Speck was just a man, and all men can be cracked open.
Ducasse was on his way out the door when the TV flashed red. He tilted the monitor towards him. Breaking news --- “Dr. Speck has broken his own record. He has just teleported an object 2,484 miles.” The recording showed Speck in his laboratory, expressionless, flipping a switch, bathing an old Polaroid camera in yellow light. Flash. Gone. And then, in a laboratory in Sarasota, Florida...Flash. The old camera sat on the floor under a stainless steel table. A technician picked it up and took a picture of a vase filled with blue hydrangeas. He put it back on the table. Flash. Gone. Dr. Speck, calm and cold, held the camera in his hands. He pulled the picture out, shook it, and showed it to the audience. A vase filled with blue hydrangeas. The reporter chimed in: “Today’s breakthrough suggests that Dr. Speck is on track to meet his August 6th deadline. The whole world will be watching then, as he attempts to teleport an object around the world --- in under a second.”
Ducasse was going to be late. He grabbed his thin dossier and his fountain pen from the TV stand, and began fumbling around for his keys. He searched the stand, and then the cabinets below it. He quickly flew into a rage, digging through every pile of paper, clearing off entire counter tops with a sweep of his arm, groaning. Where the fuck are they, he thought, over and over again.
The keys had slipped behind the TV stand when he had adjusted the monitor. They had then dropped into a grate. Ducasse could search for hours -- he could throw out every piece of furniture in his whole apartment, he could burn the place down or sweep it with a metal detector, and still, he would never find those keys. They were lost, and only one who had seen them fall could make it otherwise.
The helicopter ride was incredibly nauseating, and Ducasse was still upset about his keys. How the hell was he going to get back inside? As for information, Speck’s assistant Hank was useless --- he had worked with the man for three years and could tell Ducasse nothing except that the doctor likes his coffee black.
Ducasse stepped out of the copter and onto the helipad. The laboratory loomed up ahead --- a ghostly white domed structure with a telescope jutting out of its oculus. Below it, chiseled right into the mountainside, the giant fusion reactor let loose a sinister hum. Ducasse followed Hank inside the lab, and found Dr. Speck hunched over in front of a monitor, examining images of the cosmos, wading through the space-time continuum.
Hank cleared his throat: “Dr. Speck, Mr. Henri Ducasse is here to talk with you.”
Speck stood upright, and swept his hand toward the door, a gesture that meant “leave, Hank.” Two stools had been set up in front of the desk. The two men sat down, and Speck waited silently for Ducasse to start asking questions.
“I understand you’re a man of few words, Dr. Speck. I understand that you have very little time for people like me --- people who talk for a living. But please keep in mind that I’m here because you want me to be here. You want something, and I want to give it to you. I’m just going to ask you some questions, some professional, and some personal. The more cooperative you are, the quicker I’ll be gone. I hope you won’t mind if I take some notes.”
Speck did not respond. He gave no indication that he had even heard Ducasse speak. Ducasse did not fidget, but he wanted to. There was something about Speck’s stare that was...disquieting. He wasn’t looking through Ducasse, per se. He was looking past him. As if he were blind. Ducasse took out his legal pad and uncapped his pen.
“You’ve asked Mr. Pierpont to provide you with an unmanned spacecraft, designed to your specifications, the likes of which, as I understand it, has never been built before. It is twice the size of the ISS. Its satellite imaging is so advanced that it could take a high-resolution three-dimensional photograph of a hydrogen atom in a star on the other side of the universe. Most of its technology is classified. We will need to enlist the help of four foreign governments, none of whom will be particularly receptive to the idea of helping a ruthless American Hedge Fund manager acquire an insanely lucrative monopoly. Are you aware of all this?”
Speck sat still as stone.
“Now I realize that your research is entirely beyond my range of understanding. Given that you refuse to collaborate with any other scientists, your research is, in fact, beyond the range of anyone’s understanding. But I have consulted with some of the greatest minds in the world, and none of them can even imagine why you need this ship. Do you think you could try to explain it to me?”
Speck nodded. Ducasse breathed a sigh of relief.
“Every point in the universe has a precise coordinate.”
Speck paused. Or so Ducasse thought. He had actually stopped.
“Please go on with the explanation, Dr. Speck.”
“That was the explanation.”
“I hate to be rude, Doctor, but it wasn’t a very satisfying one. I’m going to have a lot of trouble convincing Mr. Pierpont that a single sentence is worth 4 billion dollars. Please, go on.”
Speck nodded. The rudeness didn’t seem to bother him.
“In order for Quantum Leaping to be successful, I must know two precise coordinates. First, the coordinates of every atom in the departing object. It is, unfortunately, impossible to know the precise location of every electron, but knowledge of its area has been sufficient. Second, I must know the coordinates of the destination, and the conditions of that coordinate. I must know the temperature, the humidity, the air pressure. The spacecraft measures these coordinates instantaneously, which allows me to adjust the object’s energy levels.”
Ducasse tried his best not to be intimidated.
“And why can’t scientists on the ground take the readings?”
“Scientists cannot report conditions faster than the speed of light.”
“The spacecraft can?”
“So it can teleport information?”
“Now let me ask a very obvious question. How have you been able to teleport objects successfully, thus far, without the aid of any spacecraft?”
Speck blinked for the first time. Ducasse made a note of it.
“I have not teleported anything successfully. The trial testing has occurred in two phases. In Phase 1, quantum leaping did occur, but the objects arrived at unpredictable locations. One camera landed in an occupied bathtub a few miles from here. Another broke a windshield on the highway nearby. Most objects could not maintain structural integrity -- only 2% survived the leap. I do not believe 2% survival rates would entice human consumers.”
Ducasse laughed at what he thought was a joke. Speck received the laughter with confusion, and droned on in his monotone:
“Phase 2 has been less of a failure, but a failure nonetheless.”
“I saw the news report this morning. The camera arrived in the laboratory, fully functional. That didn’t look like failure to me.”
“Failure can look like success to the untrained eye. The camera was supposed to arrive on top of the steel table. Instead, it arrived on the floor underneath it. A difference of three feet may not seem significant, but it is. It could have stopped inside a wall. It could have stopped inside a man’s circulatory system. The spacecraft will correct these errors.”
For reasons that Ducasse could not quite explain, he was sure Speck was lying. Sure, the Doctor’s face was utterly unreadable -- it belonged on a statue of the Buddha -- and his blinking didn’t seem to have any pattern at all. But still, something in the way he spoke, the rhythm of it, it sounded...rehearsed. The answers were just too concise for someone who never communicates, right? It was time to go off script.
“Why a camera?”
“Why do you always teleport a camera? Why not a can of coke? Or a goldfish?”
“My reasons are my own.”
Ducasse smiled. Finally, something to work with.
“I’m afraid that’s not good enough, Dr. Speck. I mean, what if that’s all you can teleport? How would that be profitable for us? We need to know why you choose a camera.”
“My mother...she gave me a Polaroid camera for my, 7th, birthday. The day before she died..”
Liar. Liar. Liar. Ducasse pulled his stool forward.
“Why did you become a scientist, Dr. Speck?”
Speck went silent for a full minute. Ducasse was about to ask again when --
“I wanted to know the truth.”
“The universe whispers secrets. It’s the job of the scientist to overhear them.”
Ducasse’s heart sank. Now Speck was being brutally honest.
“I have to ask you these personal questions, Dr. Speck, to find out if there are any reasons why you could be lying. Why you could be keeping secrets. Secrets that could get in the way of you honoring your arrangement with Mr. Pierpont. You can understand that, right, Doctor?”
Speck ignored the question. He looked like he was about to yawn.
“Your past is a total mystery. It almost seems like a secret. I did days of research and found pretty much no information on you. Pretty strange, considering you’re the most famous scientist since Einstein. You went to Carrol College, is that right? Here in Montana?”
An almost imperceptible change swept across Speck’s face. It was in the eyes. They’d come back from the dead, just for a second. They’d narrowed. Ducasse’s heart skipped a beat. He was on to something, wasn’t he? He pulled his stool in closer.
“Small school. I dug up your transcript. Very interesting. It seems like you were awfully close to failing out. Right up until the second semester of your sophomore year. After that, all A’s. All kinds of awards, prizes, grants. You won the Macarthur Fellowship in your senior year. What happened -- can I ask?”
For the first time, Speck made eye contact. Ducasse made a note.
“Tutor,” he said.
Lying without even trying. This was it. Ducasse could practically smell Speck’s nerves. He pulled his stool up even closer, until he was right in the Doctor’s face. That would throw him off balance. Slip him up.
“Your medical records show you were hospitalized just once, the night after your college graduation. For pneumonia?”
Speck stared ahead blankly.
“How’d that happen?”
“Fainted. In the snow.”
“Low blood sugar.”
“Did you know a girl named...” Ducasse glanced at his notepad, although he didn’t need to. “Lily Valois?”
“She was in your class. A Professor said you knew her.”
“You were called in for questioning.”
“Do you have any idea what happened to her?”
Speck stared off again. He yawned a yawn that sucked all the tension out of the room, like a black hole. Ducasse couldn’t even process his disappointment. The girl had been his ace in the hole. He was sure that would be the tipping point, but now...it was just another dead end. Speck wasn’t going to crack, and Ducasse didn’t have enough evidence to make any accusations. He capped his pen.
Just then, Speck catapulted out of his chair. He pounced, tackling Ducasse to the ground, and began beating his interrogator mercilessly, bashing his face in with his fists, banging his head against the floor, smearing the sterile white tiles with blood. Ducasse was screaming, shrill as a schoolgirl, his eyes wide in panic. Speck was...
When Ducasse awoke in a hospital room five weeks later and remembered what had happened, he smiled. The automaton was human after all! He had cracked. Cracked Ducasse’s skull in several places and broken his jaw and his nose. Smiling was immensely painful, but Ducasse couldn’t help himself. His line of work had always been thrilling and lucrative, but now it was also dangerous. That added a bit of sexiness to the whole enterprise that women were bound to find irresistible.
The nurse burst into the hospital room wearing a stupid smile. She was so blond Ducasse needed sunglasses just to look at her. “You have a phone call Henri! From a Mr. Pierpont?” Ducasse picked up, and pushed the receiver against the cast on his face.
“Henri, Henri, so sorry to hear about what happened to you. Obviously you’ll be very well compensated, not just for your injuries, but also for your discretion. Anyway, I’m just calling to wish you a speedy recovery. You’ll be back on your feet in no time, pal, I’m sure of it.”
Ducasse was mystified. Barely able to move his jaw, he managed to speak up through pursed lips: “Burt -- but, don’t chew want tur know what happen?”
“Well, yes, actually, I’d love to know what the hell happened out there. But that can wait until you’re all better, Mr. Ducasse.”
“Burt the durd -- deadline.”
“Oh don’t worry about that. You just rest up.”
Ducasse adjusted his bandage and clicked on the morphine drip. He had to talk.
“The spacecraft -- you can’t give it to him. The man is a liar. He can’t be trusted. He has a secret. Something so important he can’t ever let anyone know, or it’ll all be over for him. It’s the girl. He knew her. She disappeared.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“He attacked me. He couldn’t let me find out --
“About his past?”
“Yes c --
“Well who can blame him? That’s his business, isn’t it? I mean, who cares about the man’s past? We didn’t send you out there to take him strolling down memory lane.”
Ducasse sat upright. He was starting to hyperventilate.
“Mr. Pierpont -- the past is everything. It’s why people do what they do. He’s a liar. A bad liar. He doesn’t need that ship. He just wants it. I don’t know his reasons, but they have nothing to do with his research. It’s a trick, God damnit. It’s all a trick.”
“While you were unconscious, Mr. Ducasse, Speck teleported an object 5073 miles. He missed the target by a few feet, but let me assure you, it was no trick. The board ---
“Listen to me! Listen. You can’t give it to him!”
“We already did.”
When August 6th came the whole world tuned in. CNN had split the screen into four frames. Frame One, Montana. Frame Two, London. Frame Three, Hong Kong. Frame Four, Los Angeles. Four stops in one second. In the three foreign laboratories, gaggles of scientists stood around a steel table, clutching bottles of corked champagne. In the corner of the screen, the countdown clock read “10:00.”
He meets her in Physics 204. The Professor asks a rhetorical question, so complex it would whither the brain of a Graduate Student. He answers. He hadn’t meant to, but it had slipped out as he stared off. The class goes silent. Everyone is stunned. Afterwards, she chases him down on his slow shuffle back to the dorm. She is all brown hair and beauty marks. A Goddess of Youth, lovely as spring. When she smiles bubbles burst under his skin, and he seems to rise.
The elevator doors opened and Ducasse hobbled out --- a plaster man propped up on crutches and dripping with self-pity. The hallway home stretched out into infinite. Eventually Ducasse arrived at his apartment door, panting. Leaning on the wall, collecting his crutches in one arm, he reached into his pocket for his keys, and found nothing. Fuck.
The first date goes better than most do. Lying in a field of snow and slush and staring at the stars. She clutches her Polaroid camera and complains about the cold. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just go to Bora Bora, like that, and she snaps. Snow under your feet, and then a second later, sand. She tells him about photography. About capturing the perfect image. All you need is a new perspective. To be in the right place at the right time. He tells her about the stars. That what they see isn’t there any more. This is just their old light, lost in space, reaching us later. Their past, glowing into our present. He hadn’t meant to be lyrical. She rolls over and kisses him, for a second or for ever, it’s relative.
The super came upstairs and handed Ducasse a set of spare keys. He shoved them into the lock and tumbled into the room, rushing, by crippled standards, for the TV. The countdown clock was at 1:34, and ticking. Ducasse settled into the couch and listened to the jittery scientists field questions about “this momentous occasion.” “Will cities lose their edge?” “How long till humans can teleport?” “What will it cost?” “Is it safe?”
30 seconds left. Ducasse felt a wave of calmness wash over him. He had never been short on self-confidence, and this time was no exception --- he had exposed Speck, the man was a liar, and in a few moments he would be vindicated. 15 seconds. “Magellan sailed around the world in 3 years. 500 years later, Dr. Speck will shorten that time to a split second.” 5. The London laboratory filled the screen. 4. The camera zoomed in on the steel table. 3. A scientist pressed her manicured fingers against the champagne cork. 2. The sounds of breaths being held. 1. Nothing.
The camera switched to Montana, but the picture was blank.
Shock. Confusion. Mumbling.
Ducasse’s phone rang.
“It’s Pierpont. A Learjet leaves for Montana in 20 minutes. You need to be on it. ”
“Where’s the spaceship?”
Success comes to those who are loved. He sits in his filthy dorm room and hangs up the phone. He is pale. Shell-shocked. She walks in, effervescent and surprised by the gloom. Looking luscious in sweatpants and a tank top. What happened? She sits on the bed beside him. That was the MacArthur Foundation. She puts her hands over her mouth. I got a grant. She leaps onto him and slams his head against a pillow. He laughs. Then it’s all grabbing and gripping and just rewards. Afterwards, she dresses with a smile he can’t forget. We have to celebrate!! I’m going to go get champagne. Wait right here, ok?
Hank picked up Ducasse at base camp and flew him up to the summit. He spent the whole flight asking about his stipend -- “It’s not my fault, you know? He never told me what he was working on, so I couldn’t help. I need the money from Mr. Pierpont. I need to pay off my student loans. Was there anything in the contract that said I won’t get paid in full if it doesn’t work? That’s what I’m worried about. I didn’t read the contract. Did you?”
The door to the laboratory was sealed shut. Ducasse knocked.
“Busy,” Speck replied, jovially.
“The man you tried to beat to death.”
“Ah yes, come in.”
The door opened and Ducasse found Speck in a high-backed chair, his eyes glued to a giant monitor, his hands gripping a long joystick. He was watching a movie. An old, grainy movie. A beautiful girl strolled across a snow-covered campus, smiling to herself, sleet whipping into her face. The Doctor was happy to have a visitor -- his excitement was palpable -- and he invited Ducasse to sit down on the stool beside him.
“It’s impossible, isn’t it, Dr. Speck? Teleportation. The flashes of light, the cameras, the pictures, the other scientists. Those were all magic tricks. Your desperate pleas for funding. But why did you need the ship? And what the hell did you do with it?”
“It is not impossible, Mr. Ducasse. It is just not profitable. It takes decades of observation, to know the object, to know the destination. To really know them. Know every atom, and how they move, and how they will move when traveling faster than light. It took me 37 years to plan five quantum leaps. The first two were relatively easy. Short distances, unpredictable destinations, no need for structural survival. I ruined a poor woman’s bath and broke a man’s windshield. But the camera survived. After those two leaps, my grant money was all gone. The energy costs were astronomical.”
“But you had peaked the interest of Mr. Pierpont.”
“Yes. He provided a fusion reactor, and the energy problem was solved.”
The girl on the monitor approached a magnificent white-stone building. She pulled a key out of her pocket, and let herself inside.
“I know that girl.”
Speck nodded absently.
“That’s Lily Valois. What...what is this footage from?”
“The second leaps were much more difficult. They took 20 years of planning. The laboratory in Florida, and then the one in Peru. 7000 miles altogether. I had to do it right, but not too right. If I hit the targets perfectly --
“Then you wouldn’t have any excuse for the ship.”
“That’s right. I respect you Mr. Ducasse, I do. We’re after the same thing.”
The girl stepped out of the building, jangling a set of car keys, still smiling. Speck slowly moved the joystick. The camera shifted and followed her from above as she walked to the parking lot.
“How could you have captured this? It makes no sense.”
“But nothing compared to the agony of the last leap. It took me 37 years of planning. I started right after graduation. 22 hours a day, for 37 years. There was so much to figure out. How many light-years to travel, the exact conditions and coordinates of that point in that galaxy, the precise specifications of the ship, the elaborate plot to fund the costs.”
The girl hopped into her car and began speeding down an icy highway.
“Is this...the past?”
“I had to know what happened to her. I didn’t want to guess. I needed to know. How she was lost. But there’s only one way to see the past.”
“The stars we see aren’t there anymore. That’s what I told her, once. All we see is their old light, lost in space, reaching us later. Their past, glowing into our present. That night in the snow, I realized --- there must be somewhere, some precise location, on the other side of the universe, where Earth’s old light, from the day she disappeared, would be lost in space. I just had to get there. To leap there, faster than light, right in time to capture the image and send it back.”
She walked into the supermarket with a skip in her step.
“I was never stupid. I was just lazy. There was no reward for being brilliant. Until she chased me down after Physics. Then it was just up, up, up. She changed what I saw. She was...”
Minutes passed. Speck and Ducasse watched the supermarket doors in stunned silence. Was this the moment she was lost? No. The girl came out of the store with a bottle of champagne, and got back inside her car. She revved the engine and drove off into the storm.
“And now Mr. Ducasse, it’s time for us to stop talking.”
The girl got off the highway and parked the car in the lot. She got out and put the champagne down in the driver’s seat. She zipped up her coat. She didn’t notice the two men behind her. She would have, if she’d looked in the mirror. Then she would have had time to scream. Speck and Ducasse watched it all. Watched them cover her mouth, watched them drag her into the truck, watched what they did in the woods, watched how they hid her, watched why she’d never be found. Watched them drive away.
Once she was gone, Speck re-aligned the camera. Now they watched a boy. Watched him through the window of his dorm room. Watched him wait, and wait, and wait. Watched him go to her car, watched him find the open door and the corked champagne. Watched him walk back home, watched him call her, watched him call her again, watched him call the Police, watched him wait, and wait, and wait.
Ducasse looked at Speck. He was...
He stands in a field of snow and slush, under a sky clear as cave water. He holds her Polaroid camera. He cries. Softly at first. One drop at a time. He falls to his knees, sinking into the white, sobbing like only some can. The stars watch him. He watches the stars. A Professor finds him the next morning, almost buried, almost frozen, his eyes fixed on a distant truth 37 years away.
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