Cover art by my talented long time artist friend Luis Molina, aka Akklonia. You can purchase this novel in Kindle format ($5.99) on Amazon, also works with the Kindle smartphone app. It’s having some minor formatting issues currently, due to Amazon’s document conversion process. Those will soon be ironed out, any copies bought before then will receive an over the air update. Likely it’ll be fixed by the time you read this.
Astute followers may recall this was originally a trilogy of novellas. I’ve settled into a workflow in which I write “stories” of whatever length they naturally turn out to be, rather than padding them. Then as new plots based on that same premise/setting occur to me, I add sequels until I’ve complete a trilogy, which is typically long enough to compile into a novel. This is also how All the Little People came to be published, and how a number of duologies in my oeuvre awaiting third parts may eventually become novels as well.
Without further delay, here’s the same sample you’ll get on Amazon:
No amount of reassurance that the interior of the sub would not change pressure on the way down could stop Angie from popping her ears. It was compulsive. She’d been diving only once in her life, a brief touristy hand holding affair in Cozumel back in ’26. It had gone well enough, but while everyone else adjusted to the underwater environment within minutes she had spent the entire dive pinching her nose, yawning, struggling to equalize.
Of the four crew members, she was easily the least qualified in a technical sense and felt minor guilt for taking up a seat on the mission she knew very well had been fought over ferociously by marine biologists, geologists and various other academics in applicable fields. Why the NOAA saw fit to send a dream researcher to the bottom of the Pacific was a mystery to everyone, and many had told her so by email.
That she had accepted the invitation came as a surprise to her family, but friends closer to her seemed intuitively aware of her reasons. “This is going to be big for you”, they said. Yeah, that was the idea.
She’d been stuck in what was essentially indentured servitude for six years under Mike Hargrove and two other senior scientists with the only potential way out being a job offer from a pharmaceuticals company that made sleep drugs. Put you to sleep, keep you from sleeping, stabilizing your sleeping patterns, keep you from wetting the bed, make you wet the bed, who knows what all.
The commercials were incessant, three quarters of which consisted of the narrator hurrying through the long list of side effects. She had no moral compunctions about taking the position, but the wording of the offer made it clear that she’d be transplanted from one dead end to another, and at 33 she was beginning to feel as though she should’ve accomplished more by now.
So, to the abyssal plain. The email included a photograph of the station, which looked to be a large central pressure sphere with four pill shaped cylinders extending from it. The spherical hub was supported from below by thick steel pillars, although it was more accurate to call them restraints. A sphere with that volume would be tremendously buoyant and it was only four hundred tons of pig iron in the ballast tray that held it down.
“Argyro”. Named for Argyroneta Aquatica, the diving bell spider. Co-funded by NASA as an experiment in assembling modular Mars colonies, but on the ocean floor. Angie recalled the “History of Man in the Sea” DVD she’d gotten in the mail as part of the prep packet, all prior undersea labs had been in pitifully shallow water on the continental shelf and sunk as a single preassembled unit.
Argyro was a historical first in that it was assembled module by module in a process intended to mirror how a base might be constructed on other bodies in the solar system. That was NASA’s angle, NOAA’s interest was in putting scientists on-site near a cluster of black smokers and very near the edge of the Mariana trench so that subs could be deployed into it frequently and regardless of weather conditions.
It was the most valuable research site you could hope to find for such an outpost, and in spite of the ongoing industrialization of the sea floor for mining, drilling and fish farming it had been an uphill battle to secure funding.
The pilot coughed. Lost in her own thoughts until that point Angie began to feel self conscious. It had been just the two of them in the tiny metal sphere for nearly an hour. Perhaps seven feet in diameter, the sphere was the only portion of the much larger submersible that actually held out water pressure, and space was at a premium.
The docking hatch lever was at just the right height that she’d banged the top of her head on it several times when the sub swayed unexpectedly, but there simply wasn’t room to move. Backpacks and dry cases surrounded her, and the duffel bag containing her clothing took up the remaining space on her lap.
“Claustrophobic?” The pilot, whom she’d learned on the boat was also the crew’s microbiologist, didn’t bother to turn as he addressed her. It was rhetorical, but he’d guessed wrong, so she answered anyway. “Actually not at all. I love confined spaces. When I was young I used to build make believe space capsules out of cardboard boxes. You know, stick some pillows and a blanket in there, cut a porthole, and I’d hang my tablet on the other side showing a slideshow of photos from the James Webb space telescope. It was my place to get away.”
The pilot nodded. More than he’d asked for, but it was standard practice to feel out new crew members as decades of data on human interaction in isolated, confined conditions made very clear the importance of understanding each others’ quirks. “I was the same way. My cardboard boxes were all submarines, though.” Both smiled. “I’m Eliot by the way. I study the bugs. Thermal vent organisms, extremophiles, I’m sure Lizzie told you topside.”
In fact she hadn’t. She’d spent all of ten minutes on the boat before they’d hurried her into the sub and sent her on this long descent. “I know a little bit about that, from the DVD. I saw a documentary on it once but I don’t remember much.” It didn’t escape her notice that he was an exceptionally handsome man, save for a pair of barely noticeable bags beneath his eyes. An occupational hazard in any field of research. Just then, the station came into view.
It looked astonishingly similar to the Tiangong space station. Banks of floodlights blasted forth in all directions, spotlights swept through the murky void and came to bear on their vessel. “They should be calling us momentarily.” Angie raised an eyebrow. “I thought you needed a tether for that? Water’s pretty much opaque to radio waves.” Another tidbit from the DVD.
“That’s true except for ELF, but the Argyro uses neither. Just watch.” So she did. Seconds later a shimmering turquoise beam appeared and slowly tracked their movement until it shone directly on a large patch of what she now figured for photosensitive material just under the left pumpjet. “Blue green laser. Goes further than you’d think in sea water, and it’s silent. Doesn’t disturb the critters.” Sure enough a video feed replaced the sonar readout on the small screen just above Eliot’s seat.
“Took your sweet time. Getting to know the new girl probably.” Eliot fumbled for a moment before his hand came to rest on the comms controls. “Haha, easy. You watch out for him though, he hasn’t seen a woman in three weeks.” Of course, none of them had. She expected this sort of thing, having been cooped up with a tent full of undergrads during an expedition in the Summer of ’29. She was there to study their sleep cycles. They seemed to think they were there to study her.
The spotlights and laser remained pinned on their little boat as it slowly positioned itself for docking, as though the lights were tractor beams, or lassos physically pulling the sub into place. The impact was startling, a loud clang reverberated through the hull signaling that the docking collar had received them. Whirring followed, the collar clamps pulling the rim tight for a good seal.
It was one of many small reminders that they were surrounded by cold ocean water exerting a terrible force on the hull, constantly trying to get in. Joining two pressure vessels in a safe manner such that comparatively fragile animals could pass between them in a dry, one-atmosphere environment three miles underwater is a feat in many ways more impressive than landing on the moon.
That anxiety gave way to relief when the hatch swung open and a rusty ladder slid down and locked into place in the center of the cabin. A brief shower of residual water hit Angie across the forehead. “We…we have a dry seal right?” Eliot laughed. “Yeah, that’s normal. Didn’t mean for you to get rained on, I guess I should’ve warned you but it’s not like you can avoid it.”
Arms belonging to some unseen person reached down through the hatch, like the hands of God descending from the clouds in a pillar of sunlight. “Toss me something. Let’s get you out of there.” Once all of her gear was unloaded, she shimmied around the side of the ladder and looked up into the interior of the Argyro. The light was almost blinding, her irises having adjusted to total darkness on the ride down.
That same set of hands grabbed her by the wrist and helped her up the ladder. She discovered at the top that they belonged to Leonard Snyder, the crew’s habtech. “Hope the ride wasn’t too rough. Eliot flies a sub the same way he drives.” She searched the men’s faces for hostility but their identical lopsided grins suggested the sort of recreational antagonism typical of brothers.
After brief introductions with Nathan, the Argyro’s marine geologist, Angie turned down the grand tour and opted instead for a hot meal. The sub was dry but frigid, as it ran on battery power which had to be conserved for the lights, motors and electronics. She’d been told that she might want to get into her thermal suit up on the boat but she shrugged it off, only discovering after 1,000 feet that the Rat Tail was nothing like the tourist sub she’d been on in Cozumel. No heaters, no reclining seat, nothing but the bare essentials.
“It really was a bit of an ordeal”. Angie sat with the others around the table that dominated the large central room, noticing that they all shared Eliot’s haggard appearance. The walls were all painted white, as were the cabinets, with the table and chairs being a light green plastic she later learned would glow in the dark in the event of a power failure. “I was crammed in that little steel sphere for…how long was it?” Eliot looked up from his tray. “Total travel time was one hour, 23 minutes. And it was titanium, same as the Argyro.”
Of course. She recoiled inwardly, realizing the mistake might’ve colored their impression of her competence. “Right, titanium. I remember from the DVD that the Arygro hull is a mathematically perfect titanium sphere.” Leonard nodded. “Cost a fortune, but still came in under the ISS. And they’ll never need to deorbit this tub.” Eliot snorted, his mouth full of rehydrated mashed potatoes.
The beds were stacked, three on either side at the very end of the cylinder. She’d seen an additional six bunks in the cylinder opposite. “Why just four of us? There’s twelve beds.” “If you can call these beds. But yeah, twelve.” Nathan looked across the central kitchen/lounge into the far cylinder. “Normally there’s a crew of twelve, you just missed the NEEMO guys. Eight astronauts doing a simulated space mission, they left a few days ago.”
Astronauts. It still seemed strange. She understood the principle, and had been struck herself by how similar the station looked in a superficial sense to the Tiangong on their approach, but it still seemed like an odd pairing. “Do they do EVAs?” The picture in her head was of men wearing space suits exiting an airlock, but that couldn’t be right. Those would only protect against a single atmosphere differential, and in the wrong direction.
As if sensing her confusion, he guided her to cylinder three, which was sealed off from the rest of the station by a large circular hatch. “We keep the newt suits in here. They’re a lot like space suits, use most of the same life support gear, but the armor is an inch thick and made from some nanoengineered shit that was expensive enough per pound that they could use it on the suits, but not the hull. They creak a little outside but are supposed to hold up even another thousand feet down. You can’t take them into the trench, but for basic sample gathering and sim activities outside they’re a lot less confining than the sub.”
It dawned on her that the sub was still docked. She’d been making a mental inventory of every last cubic foot of space available to her as for the next five weeks this would be her entire world. The surface was so unreachable that it may as well not exist, and only this bulbous titanium cocoon held out the cold black death of water pressure that constantly probed every seam for a way inside.
“We’ll put you in the top bunk. It’s a little bit of a hassle to get into, but it has a viewport.” Sure enough, just above the bunk and roughly where her head would be, there was a round six inch window into the featureless black expanse. “For what? There’s nothing to see. I’d be a lot more comfortable without any windows.”
Eliot laughed and propped her duffel bag up against the hull. “Don’t say that until you’ve seen the cupola. And you’d be surprised, when you turn the lights out it’s quite a show. Lots of bioluminescent critters out there, and even while the lights are on you get the occasional ghost shark or jellyfish.” There was a larger viewport at the very end of the capsule, but that was less unsettling than having one directly over her face as she slept.
Three miles of water laid above and around her, the unimaginable weight of an entire ocean pressing down on the station, struggling to crush the invaders’ stronghold. A light show did occur as promised at 11pm. The exterior lights shut off, and as she dialed down the light level in her own capsule (the remaining crew was fast asleep in the opposite capsule, having elected to give her some private space) what looked like a night sky speckled with gently swirling stars appeared through the small window overhead, and at once she understood the rationale for its inclusion. The view was alien, but also kind of magical, and soon the hiss and hum of the station’s systems lulled her to sleep.
Morning brought the familiar confusion of waking up in a strange bed along with the rather less familiar confusion of seeing complete darkness outside. Day two in the world without sun. Breakfast was something convincingly egglike in the same tan plastic tray as the meal she’d been given on arrival. Eliot finished first. “I’d like to take you out in the suit today.” Angie spit out some egg before regaining composure.
“It’s absolutely safe. I’ve done 112 EVAs without incident. When it’s over you’ll feel right at home. The other day you were just going through the normal acclimation anxiety, and in my experience this is the best way to be done with it all at once.” A brief argument ensued but Eliot was handsome and persuasive. Men like that were the kind of trouble Angie couldn’t help getting into.
Without fully understanding how he’d talked her into the suit, she soon found herself staring at the outer door of the airlock through a transparent dome, feeling around for support with metal fingers not her own, but controlled by them. She wiggled her fingers one by one in the unseen cavity at the end of each arm. She felt slight pinching from the small three-hooped harnesses that translated the movement of each finger wirelessly to the corresponding robotic digit mounted to the outside of the arm’s swivel-jointed hull, about where her hand would be if it could poke through.
“Touch this” Eliot shouted, struggling to be heard through the suit. She turned cumbersomely towards him, and he gestured at a small panel labeled “HEAT EXCHANGER” on the wall. To her astonishment, upon touching the panel she felt heat. “Resistive heaters on the finger harness. So you can tell if your grabbers are closer to the vent’s plume than they ought to be. Neat huh?”
Somehow, whatever strange power Eliot’s big stupid grin exerted on her was not reduced by the bubble’s distortion. “I must look ridiculous through this dome”, she bellowed back. “It gets worse when you’re in water. The refractive index does it, the dome acts like a lens. But eventually your eyes adjust and you don’t notice it.”
Angie stumbled in shock when the water began pouring in. A metal hand gripped her shoulder, steadying her, as if calming a spooked horse. “Just stay still. You don’t have to do anything, the suits don’t float, you might feel the joints loosen as the pressure compresses the armor a little. Just relax.” He was difficult to hear over the sound of rushing water but she felt his message more than heard it anyway.
Soon the water was up to her face. It was alarming to simply stand in place as the water rose over her head, even though she felt water on no part of her body and knew on a rational level that she was encased in $1.7 million dollars worth of life support equipment. Then the suit began to creak, and that rational part of her suddenly switched off. She fell against Eliot, who propped her up as inside the hulking suit of armor she quivered and began to sweat.
“That’s just the suit adjusting to the pressure.” She pushed away and regained balance. He sounded completely different. No longer shouting through his suit, but the same voice she’d grown accustomed to since yesterday and had privately begun to enjoy. As promised, she found the joints of the suit were much looser and she was able not only to steady herself but also to walk.
She took a step forward and looked around. “How are we able to….?” In silent reply, he pointed outside. Without her noticing, the outer hatch had swung open and two faint blue/green beams shone in through the silicone rimmed hole, terminating in bright green spots on their armor. “The suits are photosensitive. Most of them, something like 90% of the surface area. Come on, let me show you how the relays work.”
It was quite like walking on the moon. Or at least what she imagined walking on the moon must be like. Banks of floodlights illuminated the seafloor in round patches perhaps a hundred feet in diameter. The arrays were set up on tripods every few hundred feet along the path to the trench, some of them angled to create a parabolic stretch of illuminated seafloor at sites of interest. It vaguely resembled a country road at night, in the winter.
The soft ground beneath her was just as white as snow and her boots sunk in several inches. “Let’s get moving, I want to show you where the lasers come from.” She obliged, noticing on the way that the beams tracked them perfectly as they trudged through the muck. Angie attempted to jump, expecting it to be something like the footage from the Chinese moon landing but was disappointed when she couldn’t manage to get both feet free of the muck at the same time.
Eliot laughed. “Here, watch this. But don’t you dare try it until I clear you on the sim.” Just as she thought to ask “what sim”, Eliot took off. For a minute or so he sailed around overhead, ignoring her barrage of questions until he swooped in and landed. “Thruster packs. Like the EVA packs Astronauts use. Except for us it’s all micro pumpjets, not compressed gas.”
Angie immediately intuited that the control pad to one side of her thumb, which she had neglected until then, was the thruster control pad. A gentle lurch forward as she tapped the pad confirmed her suspicions. “I said don’t mess with it. We’ll put you through the sim when we get back to the station. For now just leave it alone.”
The first relay was mounted on the same sort of tripod as the lights. The emitters were clustered together facing outward in a circle, eight in total. Two thin wheels of photosensitive glass above and below received incoming laser transmissions, and the emitters doubled as LIDAR so that one emitter could perform tracking duties for either of the two lasers it was adjacent to.
“They’re stackable in case we ever get more suits and need to network more than two at a time, but with the funding situation now that’s unlikely.” As Eliot spoke Angie could just barely perceive slight fluctuation in his beam’s brightness. She was witnessing the sound of his voice being sent as concentrated light through near-freezing ocean water at 10,000 psi. It was sobering. “If our suit lasers can transmit to these relays, why don’t we just use them to talk to each other?”
Almost as soon as she’d said it, she knew it was another newbie question. “Limited range. They run on suit batteries, you don’t want those to run out since you also need them to run your rebreather. You have 12 hours of oxygen and a passive backup CO2 absorbant, but if we ever wind up using those we probably have bigger problems than not being able to communicate.”
So the short range suit lasers talked to the nearest relay, and the relay carried the message via other relays to where the other aquanaut was working. The optical equivalent of cell phone towers. “What do you do if you go someplace off of the path and you need to call home?” Eliot paused for a moment as he wiped some detritus from the relay’s emitter. “…Don’t leave the path.”
“Don’t leave the path. Don’t use the thrusters. If I check my boots am I going to find training wheels?” She was joking, but got a stern reply. “It’s your first EVA. I mostly just wanted to help you acclimate. Don’t you notice a difference? You seem a lot more comfortable now.”
He was right. She was moving confidently with the suit, her ear popping habit had vanished and if anything she felt invigorated. “I imagine your field is mostly men.” Eliot didn’t know how to take that. “I’m not making any accusations, but it seems possible you’re in the habit of assuming that women need your help.”
Eliot shrugged invisibly within his suit. “You’ll get over it.” He started back towards the station and with something between a laugh and a shout, Angie began pursuit. He proved unexpectedly quick though, and before she realized it he was out of sight. There was a fog-like effect in the distance and the dropoff was severe.
“Eliot? Eliot, I’ve lost you.” Her beam shone forth into the darkness but she received no reply. Shortly afterward the tracking readout for the laser changed from “Searching” to “Target lost”. Impossible. The range was at least a thousand feet. There was no way he had gotten so far ahead, so quickly.
Unless… “The thruster pack”, Angie thought. “He’s having some fun. He lifted off somewhere ahead of me and is going to be waiting at the station with a smug, shit eating grin. Or he’s going to come swooping down at me from above. Something.” She kept walking a ways, but soon noticed that she hadn’t seen a relay or light for some time. Her suit lights were the only visible source. That wasn’t right either, she’d been able to see the lit up path for hundreds of feet from the station, why would-
A loud thump sounded against her helmet. Something was swimming at the dome and striking it repeatedly, it was a blur of white that was moving too quickly to make out. It darted around the suit, thumping over and over against the hull, as if searching for a way inside. Angie shrieked, and flailed her metal arms ineffectively at the creature. The thrashing sent her off balance and the next thing she knew she was laying on her back in the muck surrounded by a cloud of silt.
She caught her breath, searching the cloud for some sight of the creature. Right on cue it slowly approached the dome to investigate. Angie stopped breathing entirely when it came into view. It was easily six feet long, as thick as her arm, and extremely pale. Bordering on translucent. Some kind of eel maybe, but with a face she could neither look away from nor bear to look at.
It resembled nothing more than the face of an old man. Tiny, beady eyes inset in a skeletal face with a bony jaw that evoked memories of her grandfather’s final days. Regaining her wits, Angie screamed at the eel and jammed her thumb on the thruster control. It sent her suit spinning wildly across the ocean floor, then down a steep embankment.
It was a rough ride, thrown to one side of the suit then the other as it tumbled down the hill, but Angie’s thoughts were dominated by the image of that creature’s face. Finally the suit came to rest, face down in the muck. Having apparently waited for the worst possible time, her lights went out.
With no small effort she pried herself up out of the sludge, and flipped over onto her back. Her heart was thumping wildly, the stench of sweat filling her lungs with every breath. Inside the hand cavity she fiddled with the joystick that controlled the heads up display until she found the option for turning on the backup lights. They flickered to life revealing the creature’s face looming above her, a thousand feet wide.
Angie fell out of bed screaming in a tangle of sheets. Within moments the rest of the crew gathered around her. “No, no no no…Not real, not real…” Tears soaked her cheeks and matted her hair against them as she violently struggled to be free of the sheets, blanket and other bedding. “It was, it was some kind of animal. It was small, then it was huge, I was out in the suit with Eliot-…Where is Eliot??”
It was all the three could do to restrain her until she recognized that Eliot was among them. “Angie, shhh.” he said. “You went ahead, I lost sight of you, I think I went off the path and got lost and then-” Eliot stroked her hair and gestured for the others to leave. “Angie. I didn’t go out with you.” She went silent. “We found you about half a mile down the path in one of the newt suits. You were passed out on your back. Brought you in about an hour ago, you were babbling in your sleep right up until you woke just now.”
A deep sob escaped her body as she clung to him. It was still fresh in her mind. The terrible, bony little face. And its gargantuan twin, staring down at her from above. Of course it had been a nightmare, sleep walking, something like that. Nothing else made sense. Eliot stayed with her until her bed was restored to a usable condition, and then lingered at the door.
“It was so real. I’ve never had a dream like that. Everything was so detailed, I felt it all. You showed me the relays, and-” Eliot turned. “The relays?” There was a moment of startled recognition between them. “Angie, how do you know about the relays? They’re a new addition. I was going to explain them to you tomorrow.”
For both of them it felt as if all the heat had left the room. A moment of intolerable, oppressive silence followed. “Am I crazy?” Angie seemed too willing to ask, peering at Eliot through teary eyes, huddled beneath a pile of blankets taken from the other bunks. “No Angie”, Eliot sighed. “You’re not crazy. We’ve all been having dreams like that. It’s why they sent you here.”
Breakfast was a silent affair. The deceptively painted walls created a spacious, cheery impression that did nothing to prevent Angie from feeling the full force of the outside water slowly compressing her skull. Nathan spoke first. “Eliot got hit first. Then it was Leonard, I was last. It took us a day or two to make the connection that it was affecting us in order of arrival.”
He looked back down at his tray, evidently expecting one of the others to pick up where he left off. Leonard looked up and glanced at Eliot, whose eyes gave quiet approval. “There’s records of the same thing happening to past crews, but none of them stayed down this long. It never got severe enough that they recognized it as something other than mission fatigue. One day we found Leonard sitting in the Rat Tail fumbling with the controls as if he’d never seen them before. He fought like a cornered dog when we pulled him away, only to snap out of it with no recollection of anything since he’d gone to sleep. Whatever it is, it happens while you’re sleeping. At first.”
Angie’s eyebrow elevated and she mouthed ‘at first?’ to Eliot, who nodded. “Nathan was next, had an episode in the airlock. Got in a suit and tried to surface with it. I went out in the Rat Tail and held him down until he came back to us. Only he remembered the whole thing with the small difference that in his version, Leo was with him and he saw the Arygro implode. Dream Leo told Nate to make an emergency ascent in the suit, and that’s when I woke him up.”
Nate glanced at Leo, who was staring intently at the remains of breakfast. “It’s like we’re sleep walking. At first the dreams were short, abstract, we never remembered ’em and often stayed in our beds. But after Nate and Leo’s episodes they just got more and more real, we remembered everything, each time it was someone else in the dream doing things it turned out they never did once we woke up.”
Angie scanned their faces one by one. All seemed sullen, Leo possibly ashamed. Eliot pushed his tray aside and set one elbow on the table. “I know how it sounds. But we’ve all seen it happen, unless there’s some severe folie a deux going on, I don’t-” Angie cut him off. “I believe you.” Nate muttered “It’s your job to believe us.” Eliot scowled, but Angie was unphased.
“I recognize some of what you’re describing. There’s ample precedent, although I will admit that it’s unusual to see it manifest identically in more than one person in the same place. That alone suggests some common factor, most likely something physiological related to your time spent down here.” Nathan piped up again. “Show her Wormwood.” Eliot whipped around and glared at him.
“What’s wormwood?” Angie looked around, but nobody seemed forthcoming. Finally, Eliot spoke up, but his answer only created new questions. “He means the body”. She waited for further clarification but none was forthcoming. “What body? What are you talking about? Did someone die?”
It took some doing to talk her back into the sub. The uncoupling process sent a powerful lurching sensation through her body, and it took several seconds for the hull to stop vibrating. The ocean seemed violently frustrated that they had cheated it out of an opportunity to penetrate the Rat Tail and Arygro.
Angie’s eyes strained to make out the docking collar receding into the darkness as the sub pulled away. It was alarming to think that a minute earlier, she’d been standing there. She’d passed safely through that hatch, in breathable air and comfortable pressure, where now there was only frigid black death. “We can only stay for a few minutes. The effect becomes more powerful with proximity, and with the number of people.”
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