Cayuga

14 Nov

Although he had never before seen the man who was coming into his office, Reu Hame knew who he was.

The short stranger had a dark brown cheroot in his mouth. His corduroy suit and watery eyes were exactly the same color.

He was clearly a native of the great grassland range.

Rising from behind his oaken desk, the geneticist showed himself to be extraordinarily tall and thin. “Dr. Endo Toret, I presume,” said Reu, offering his hand.

“Pardon my tardiness,” apologized the white-haired visitor, taking the tiny cigar out of his mouth with his left hand and extending his right.

After shaking hands, the two sat down.

“As public farrier of Padnag District, I have been delegated by the breeders to come here to Cayuga City and seek your advice, sir,” explained the veterinarian in brown corduroy. “You are our last hope. I am unable to do anything on my own concerning the situation. Our tarpans grow sick, one by one. Many have already died.”

The biogeneticist stared fixedly at him. “Your message spoke of the disease as fire fever. I am, unfortunately, unfamiliar with what you mean by that. I have never seen any reference to anything by that name. Such an illness in animals does not appear to have ever existed in the land of Cayuga before now.”

“Early this spring several tarpans came down with unusual symptoms. I could not identify the malady, never having seen anything like it. They seemed at first to be falling into stupor, wandering about in confusion. The sick equines avoided the herds with others. They grew slow and languid.”v

“Did your inspection show anything physically wrong with them?”

The farrier shook his head. “Nothing. The condition only grew worse. Tarpans started to sway and stumble. Their delirium became extreme, reflected in an unstable, unbalanced gait. They came to drag their hind legs as the sickness progressed.”

“This seems to possess aspects of loco disease,” said Hame with anger. “That is an old equine illness caused by eating the astragalos plant. But there have been no cases reported anywhere in Cayuga for many, many years. An intensive campaign was carried out to destroy that poisonous weed.”

“Yes,” nodded the vet. “It was totally exterminated long ago. But that is not what our breeders are facing today.”

The geneticist considered for a moment. “What is it that you want me to do, then?”

Toret hesitated. “This is heartbreaking. The ranchers watch as their animals die in convulsions. The suffering tarpans eat dirt, fall into frenzy, and pass torrents of blood. In their final minutes, the doomed creatures flee from the light of the daystar. It is a horrible death they undergo. It has been named fire fever, since the tarpans appear to be ablaze inside.

“I have come to the conclusion that there are genetic factors of some sort involved in this. All other possibilities have been eliminated. Nowhere else has there been any similar outbreak. So, you must visit our district, sir. We need your expertise to solve the mystery.”

The room became silent as Hame made his decision. It was curiosity that triumphed within the mind of the scientist. He gazed at the district farrier with glowing aquamarine eyes.

“Yes, I will try to help your people. A leave of absence can be arranged from my research post here in the city. No promises are possible, but I will do my best for the breeders and their tarpans.”

The veterinarian sprang out of his chair, pulling the cheroot out of his mouth. “I’ll make our tracker reservations at once. Can you be ready by tomorrow morning?”

“Yes,” answered Reu with a radiant grin. “I am eager to start at once.”

Congested traffic clogged the downtown streets of Cayuga City.

Every variety of tarpan-drawn vehicle was visible in the jammed scene: light shays, gigs, traps, and chaises; tilburies, stanhopes, and sulkies; team-pulled barouches, clarences, diligences, surreys, four-in-hands, landaus, and berliners. Their progress forward grew slower and slower until pedestrians walked along faster than these conveyances.

Dr. Hame took a hackney cab to the tracker station, his luggage in the back. He was to meet his traveling companion on the train itself.

Outside, he could see the cuprum statues of equine varieties now raised in Cayuga for protein consumption as meat. The early hyracotherium, the earliest and most primitive species. The calippus, the hippidion, and the hipparion: today mostly butchered for food and organic raw material. But it was the tarpan that served as the main means of transportation within the borders of the land named Cayuga.

Reu had studied in minute detail the genetic development of the ancestors of the dominant equine, the tarpan. He believed that he knew them all: the hyracotherium, orohippus, haplohippus, merohippus, anchiterium, hypohippus, nannihippus, hipparion, calippus, pliohippus, and hippidium. The main advantage was that these all were still alive. All but the tarpan had become sources of food and raw materials for human beings. Giant equine farms produced millions of the creatures for the population of Cayuga, as well as for export up and down the Continent.

But an unexpected peril to the king of the equines, the tarpan, had arisen out in Padnag District, this new fire fever. Reu worried about how far it would spread. He furrowed his brow in thought.

Soon the cab arrived at the tracker station. Dr. Endo Toret was waiting inside the great concourse. Once the scientist’s luggage was seen to, the two travelers boarded their train carriage. From the front came the snorting of the team of twelve tarpans harnessed to the four vehicles in which passengers were carried by rail to the grassland range. Hame occupied a window seat, the farrier beside him. They did not speak of the new disease until the train of carriages was in the countryside beyond Cayuga City, in the zone of farms and pastures. Fields of timothy and clover gave way to redtop meadows where hipparions grazed.

“The breeders must be deeply worried about the fire fever,” sighed Reu. “The economic losses will be enormous, I imagine.”

Toret turned to him. “This will be ruinous,” he muttered darkly. “The small ranchers are suffering the greatest share of tarpan deaths.”

“I recall from Cayuga history courses that the settlement of your region was most difficult. There was danger to the tarpan herds from the wild hrosses of the desert. A long, arduous campaign was necessary to eradicate that distant cousin of today’s equines.”

The vet grimaced. “My great-grandfather moved to Padnag District in the final years of the range war against the untamed mestengos. My father remembered stories of the old Cayugan rangers about how the first settlers had to use flame-throwers against the feral hrosses.”

“Flame-throwers!” gasped the geneticist. “Yes, now I remember reading how fire became the ultimate weapon in the clearing of the grassland.”

“The hross became extinct long ago, my friend,” mused Toret. “But today an internal fire is the enemy plaguing our tarpans on the range.”

Reu peered out the carriage window. They were passing a stand of bearwood trees. A few scattered pepper trees, and they were on the level, treeless grassland of Cayuga. Herds of tarpans watched the tracker train as it went by them.

A buckboard driven by a corduroy-wearing wrangler waited outside the small Padnag Town station. “Mr. Daisan sent me to fetch you and the visitor,” explained the ranch hand. “He would like you to meet him.” His dark shadowy eyes scanned the tall stranger from the capital city.

Toret arranged to have Reu’s luggage sent to his own cabin, then climbed into the vehicle beside his companion. “Sbit Daisan owns the largest spread and greatest herds in the district,” he informed Hame in a low voice. “He is very interested in finding a solution to fire fever.”

As they moved down an unpaved pathway, a group of three figures on tarpans came toward them. The trio were garbed in azure burnooses. As they moved closer, wrinkled red faces became visible. “Peregrines,” whispered Endo Toret. “These desert inhabitants come to buy tarpans at the Spring Fair. But the nomads we see have arrived quite early for that.”

Reu stared at the strangers in blue. He had read of them, but never himself seen a live, authentic peregrine till now.

When the two parties had passed each other, the farrier spoke. “They depend on our ranches for their equines,” he said with a smile. “Somehow, the peregrines have never learned how to breed the tarpans for themselves.”

On both sides of them stretched empty fields of zacaton grass with scattered goosefoot bushes. “Everyone keeps their herd stabled,” muttered Toret. “No one has any idea where the danger may come from.”

“Yes, I understand that,” replied the visitor softly.

The size of the Daisan holdings astonished Reu. Each of two dozen different units had its own central stable. Supply barns were scattered over tens of thousands of acres. Modern equipment was visible around each building. Wagons and buckboards moved about, pulled by pale yellow tarpans.

“Sbit Daisan has expanded the ranch far beyond what his father left him,” said Endo as they rode toward the center. “His genetic strains are the best anywhere on the range, far beyond our district.”

On the horizon appeared the pointed peak of what soon would be seen to be an enormous, spacious building of some shining material.

“That is the palatial alcazar built by Sbit’s grandfather,” said Endo. “It is the most imposing, impressive edifice in this region.”

“Yes,” nodded Reu with awe. “I never expected to see anything that large on the range. Daisan must, indeed, be extremely wealthy.”

“No one can doubt that, once they see where he lives.”

The buckboard went past fields of greener, thicker grass than any the geneticist had seen since leaving the tracker train. A small herd of yellow tarpan colts was grazing near the front of the towering residence.

“Sbit Daisan has a microscopic transmitter implanted in each of his animals when it is young,” explained Toret. “Wherever the tarpan goes, the wranglers can locate it. He is the only rancher who can afford such a complex system of monitoring.”

Slowly, the buckboard stopped before the main entrance of the alabaster palace. A large figure in a pale pink suit stepped through the double door.

“That is Daisan,” said the vet under his breath.

The two climbed down and directly faced the ranch owner.

“Dr. Hame?” smiled the latter, his vermeil eyes staring with a red inner glow. Strawlike hair in a crew cut topped his cube-shaped head. He gave Toret a nod, then spoke to both of them in a sonorous baritone. “Let’s go in. It is cool and comfortable back on the veranda.”

The two followed him into the alcazar, crossing a high rotunda. Reu glanced at the opulent furnishings as they went through enormous rooms. Gold trimming glowed all about, it appeared to the city man.

Daisan opened a windowed door to the screened veranda. “Be seated,” said the host, following them out. He offered his guests iced drinks from a freezer chest in the middle of the shaded porch.

“I’ll have scuppernong,” decided Endo.

Reu chose some Cayugan wine.

The rancher served both of them himself. He remained standing as he addressed the man from the capital. “I am told you are the best equine geneticist in the country.”

Reu replied with a warm grin. “I have heard such rumors,” he said.”But is this plague something inherited through the genes?”

Endo suddenly intervened. “The disease has been a complete enigma. There is no virus or bacteria involved. Nothing from the surrounding environment. That leaves the tarpan genome our only alternative. A detailed study of the equines in this district has become necessary.”

Daisan turned and looked at Reu. “What do you think, Dr. Hame? That would be a very ambitious and expensive project. But what if the theory is wrong and the cause is not genetic?”

Reu took a sip of wine before he answered. “In science, we sometimes must set up our best guess as the hypothesis to be put to a test. At any particular point in time, one alternative may appear best. Later, though, another hypothesis could be optimal. At any rate, a genomic survey can establish the history of our tarpan strain.”

Daisan looked perplexed. “You cannot map out thousands of genes in a short time. Even I know that.”

“There is new testing equipment available in Cayuga City,” explained the scientist. “Though highly expensive, it could be rented and brought here for use in this survey. The study, I estimate, might take a year or so to complete.”

“Who is to pay the expense of it all?” demanded the rancher. “It is apt to end up very costly.”

“That is why your participation is vital, sir,” added Endo in a pleading tone. “The small ranchers will have a difficult time of it without help from you.”

For a time, no one on the veranda said anything.

“I need to think about the matter,” concluded Daisan abruptly. “For now, let me show you some of my sick tarpans, Dr. Hame.”

The three left shortly to inspect the equine infirmary.

Quarantined animals were kept in an isolated quonset in a far corner of the vast ranch. The two visitors and Daisan rode there in a surrey with a driver. Little was said until they reached their destination. Eerie whining came from the emergency stable. As the three walked toward the structure, a deadly, mephitic stench attacked their nasal senses.

Daisal opened the door into the stable of doomed equines. It was dark inside. As the three stepped into the quonset, rays of light flooded in, setting off pandemonium.

Never in his life had Reu heard such feral, insane animal sounds.

The rancher quickly closed the door and led the others forward into the dark aisle in the center. Shadowy four-legged bodies stamped and rambled within the stalls on both sides. Whinnies of alarm rose in volume. Whickering and braying filled the quonset with eerie noise.

Daisan turned to the two behind him. “Proceed slowly,” he commanded under his breath.

Reu walked forward into the thick darkness behind the other two. He watched as the ranch owner took a pencil light beamer from his pocket and turned it on, pointing the weak beam down on the floor of the stable.

The hidden eyes of the mad tarpans followed them as they advanced. Rearing hind legs caused a monstrous din in the stalls. Fear rose to the level of frenzy. Daisan halted, then turned around and spoke to Reu Hame. “You see their condition? We dare not let in the light of day. They could not tolerate the brightness.”

“Could I approach and look at one of them?” inquired the geneticist.

“There is a mare to your right. That is the easiest one to get close to, but be careful. Don’t make any sudden movements.”

Reu stepped gradually toward the trembling mare. His aquamarine eyes were by now adjusted to the absence of light. He was only a foot from the stall door when he made out the hysterical eyes of the tarpan mare. A mordant, burning smell came from the insane animal.

The mare’s body had a reddish tinge that Reu instantly identified. Was this a result of the fire fever? he wondered as he moved up to the low door.

All at once, the terrified creature went berserk. White foam bubbled from its mouth. Harsh snorts sounded through the raised nose. Its feet stamped the ground.

Reu froze in place as the mare lifted its front legs toward him. Before he could escape, it lunged and jumped, striking a blow to his head with one limb. The stunned scientist fell backwards. As he hit the ground, his eyes caught a flash of light from Daisan’s pencil beamer.

The other two had rushed forward to rescue him from a stomping. Daisan aimed the narrow stream from his lighter directly into the eyes of the mare, startling it into retreating.

Still awake, Reu observed a flash of flaming orange in the large pupils of the tarpan. But then, this conscious state snapped out and disappeared.

He awoke that night in a bed in Toret’s cabin on the edge of Padnag Town, his head wrapped in bandages. The veterinarian stood next to him. “You should recover fully in a few weeks, pal,” said Endo. “It could have been much uglier. Mr. Daisan acted quickly and saved you from worse.”

On the tenth day of Reu’s recovery, Endo came to him with the news of Daisan’s final refusal to help finance a genetic survey of all the tarpans in the district. “He doesn’t believe it would actually contribute to a solution,” reported Toret.

Reu looked up from the bed he lay in, his head propped up on a pillow. “Strangely, I knew he wouldn’t cooperate,” mumbled the geneticist. “Perhaps you haven’t sensed my feelings, but I don’t like Sbit Daisan, not at all. I can’t explain it verbally or consciously, but I fear the man.”

Toret gave him a searching, piercing look, then forced himself to change the subject. “The Spring Fair begins next week. If you are well by then, I can show you some interesting sights and attractions there.”

Reu fell silent a moment, then expressed his reaction. “Yes, I want to have a look around that event,” he noted after a brief period of heavy thought.

A wild, carnival atmosphere pervaded the Padnag Fair. It was held at the end of town across from the location of the cabin where Reu was staying. Music from a steam calliope filled the air around the carousel whirligig and amusement rides. Away from the area of amusement and divertissment, the serious business of tarpan trading was going on. Agents of urban companies, farmers from the agricultural belts, and desert peregrines mingled around the several exhibition corrals. Wranglers in corduroy jackets led equines around the fenced circles as auctioning went on. There was no rest from the unbroken trading activity going on.

The first night of the festival, Reu attended with Toret. As he walked about with the farrier, his mind kept returning to doubts about the character of Sbit Daisan. Was he sacrificing a small fraction of his own herds in order to divert suspicion from himself? But how could such a horrible illness be induced? And what objective could be motivating such a demonic conspiracy? For Reu had concluded that the magnate’s purposes were selfish ones. The attack on him by the tarpans had awakened his questioning of the wealthy landholder. The incident was not accidental, he sensed in an obscure corner of his mind. Such things do not occur by chance. In some unseen manner, Daisan had manipulated the sick animal. Why that was so, Reu was unable to figure out. The instrument that incited the tarpan had to be the man’s light beamer.

Reu recalled the strange orange light shining in the mare’s mad eyes. It had imprinted an image of fire into his own human memory. There had never been such an experience for him before. It had an arcane, hidden meaning, he was certain. His mind grappled with the mystery of how optics could control a tarpan, inciting a wild, violent reaction. But he remembered what he had witnessed.

The third night of the lively fair, Toret was busy with an animal case so that the geneticist had to attend the festivities by himself. He watched as a small group of peregrines made bids for tarpan colts. By chance, one of the men in blue burnoose pulled out of a pocket a tiny beamer that looked identical to the one he had seen used by Sbit Daisan in the tarpan stable. The man from the desert was using it to read over a list of the equines for sale.

Reu decided to keep an eye on the peregrine as he moved in the crowd around the auction pens. The rational scientist found himself led by an intuitive hunch impossible to explain.

By the time the last auction had ended, Reu had seen three other nomads take out and use identical small light beamers. Charged up with new excitement, he decided to follow the stream of peregrines to their temporary encampment a short distance from the fair site.

Reu waited, allowing the squads in blue to have a head start. He trailed behind, at what he considered a safe, unnoticed distance. Above, a vast field of stars blanketed the purple night. At the border of sky and range land sat tents and wagons of the desert wanderers. They had already purchased many tarpans, which they held in a small, unfenced area. Many separate campfires surrounded this central hub of the nomads. The view here was a spectacular one.

All at once, the stalker swooned to the ground, into an unforeseeable coma. Noiselessly, a blue peregrine had crept up from behind and clubbed him with a truncheon of calcite crystal.

Forward motion jarred the awakening mind. Reu was in a desert van, being carried away from the fair grounds at Padnag Town. His head throbbed. Looking about the wagon he was in, it soon became clear that he was not alone. A short man in a white robe sat on a fixed bench across from him. Blazing xanthous eyes looked forth from a square face with wrinkled, reddened skin.

The stranger started to speak as Reu raised himself up on a small, moldy pillow. “Do not tell me any lies, I warn you,” the man said curtly. “We know that you are the one who came from the capital. You are a gene expert. Many of us saw how you watched all the peregrines in your sight, and then followed them to the camp. What were you after last night? What did you wish to find out or learn?”

The prisoner had to search for his voice a short while, clearing his throat three times before starting to explain.

“The peregrines are bringing fire fever with their beamers,” he managed to mumble. “Your purpose in causing this evil disease, I know not. There is nothing rational about it. But my suspicion is that Mr. Sbit Daisan is a part of your conspiracy. I have good reason to think so.”

Suddenly, the small man dressed in white got up and made his way to the bed. His yellow eyes shone with mad anger. “I am Masum Faro, the Grand Convulsive of the Desert,” he said with a growl. “No other peregrine enjoys that high rank. Do you know what it means?”

Reu realized that he had to be careful in his words. “No one has much knowledge of the nomads, especially about what they do with their equines. I am certainly ignorant on that score.”

Faro leaned down over the head of the other. “We will lead you out to the herds. It makes no difference what you see, since there will be no return journey for you.”

The geneticist gulped. “What happens to all the tarpans that the peregrines take with them into the desert?” he demanded. “Do they also suffer death by fire fever?”

The Convulsive reached into his pocket, drawing out a pencil lighter. “This is what spreads the tarpan illness. You are supposedly an expert in science, but you are ignorant of what we call the fire gene.”

“The fire gene?”

Masum Faro gave a devilish grin. “An inherited potential to fall mad, fleeing flame, fire, and burning light. We peregrines possess advanced optical technology that other people have no idea of. A miniaturized catadioptric lens inside each beamer imprints a permanent eidetic image on the brain of a chosen tarpan. The after-image on the retina cannot be erased, ever. Death is guaranteed to the victim.”

“But why destroy equines?” cried out Reu Hame. “What does it profit anyone? Are the peregrines and Sbit Daisan raving lunatics?”

“No, none of us are crazy. Far from it. But you shall not live long enough to see the New Kingdom.”

“New Kingdom?”

“The hross will become supreme while the tarpan disappears into history.”

All of a sudden, Reu began to grasp what the scheme was. “You have the hross? It did not die out?”

“We have great but secret herds, hidden far off in the distant desert.”

“They are to replace the tarpans? But the hross is said to be wild and untamed.”

Faro drew a deep breath. “Long ago, in a forgotten age, our ancestors domesticated the hross, using optical means to control them. You see, we have developed a technology that combines focused light and the equine genome. That has become our instrument of control.”

“How is Daisan involved? What is his angle?”

“As a youth, he once became lost in the desert. Peregrines rescued him and inducted the lad into their hereditary phyle. Before he returned to his parents on the family ranch, Sbit had become an apprentice to the Convulsive of that day. He continues to practice the skills he obtained at that time. But that has to be hidden, kept private. It ties the man to our desert tribes.

“When the day of the New Kingdom arrives, he will be the greatest hross owner in the grasslands. His cultic rank will be just below my own position as Grand Convulsive.”

“I take it that you plan to beome the ruler,” muttered Reu.

Faro nodded yes, then returned to the bench across the carrier van.

When the daystar set, the peregrine caravan was already encamped for the coming night. Masum Faro, now in a black burnoose, climbed into the van that held the prisoner. The latter sprang to his feet from the bed he rested upon.

“Come with me,” said the desert dweller.”You shall be allowed to see what happens to the tarpans that we buy.”

Within seconds, Reu was outdoors in the evening air of the barren wasteland. It took a short while for his aquamarine eyes to adjust as he stood beside the peregrine leader. All of a sudden, he felt a jolt of astonishment as a rider mounted on an unfamiliar animal passed by him. Even in the twilight, he could make out the dark brown of its coating. It was taller and heavier than a tarpan. The head was startingly large, the tail grotesquely long. “Is it a hross?” he inquired, nearly in a daze.

“Yes,” answered the one in black.

Within minutes, several other creatures appeared, each with a pererine in blue burnoose on it.

Faro gestured to the prisoner to follow him. The two of them approached the place where the recently purchased tarpans were herded together, surrounded by mounted hrosses. There were fifty or sixty tarpans, visibly frightened and uncertain what was in store for them.

Reu could see the peregrines congregating on four sides of the recently acquired animals. Each rider dismounted from his hross and joined the majority who were on foot, until there was a crowd of over a hundred surrounding the tarpans.

Masum Faro began to address the kidnapped scientist. “The reason we buy the tarpans is simple: they are needed for a ritual that we peregrines practice. It is called decollation. Do you know what the term means?”

The other swallowed hard. “Decapitation?”

“As the Grand Convulsive, it is my duty to behead the chosen sacrifice.”

“What kind of sacrifice can that be?” snapped Reu, his emotions boiling up.

“In memory of all the hrosses slaughtered over a century ago, when they were driven from the grasses of the range.” Faro spoke slowly, with solmnity in his voice. “It is done with the traditional zirconic bowstring, by the current Grand Convulsive. We will now have a sufficient number of tarpans for the coming year.”

Reu peered at the leader of peregrines with rising consternation. He realized that he was about to witness a rite of supreme insanity, a tradition of mad murder.

Suddenly, Masum Faro moved off, toward a group of peregrines on the edge of the terrified tarpans. Reu watched in awe as the men in blue burnooses began to chant a folk epic about how the first hrosses escaped to the desert and were hidden away by the nomads.

Their culture now centers on this cult of the supposedly extinct hross, realized the geneticist. He looked about him. All the peregrines appeared hypnotized by what the figure in black was doing. Bowstring in hand, Faro spun around again and again.

Rotating himself into an ecstatic state, decided Reu.

Two others in black brought forward a tarpan with terror in its eyes. All eyes were on the Grand Convulsive and what he was about to do.

“Now is my moment,” Hame told himself. He set his gaze on a fuscous hross that its owner had left less than ten spans away from him. There was a single peregrine saddle on the dark creature. Reu hurled himself to one side, leaping onto the back of the large equine.

Years of practice on tarpans at the Cayuga City Riding Club stood behind him. But this was not a hippodrome for exhibitions by amateur equestrians. It was a life or death proposition on a hross.

Although a stranger was atop it, the hross was trained to obey.

Reu slapped the side of his unfamiliar mount. Soon the animal was trotting away from the scene of decollation, into the empty desert.

A member of the Padnag Volunteers patrolling the border of the range came across the missing geneticist. He stared at the fantastic dark brown beast and the man who rode it, and then used his remote cell to send a wave message to Padnag Town.

While Reu was eating some dry burgoo with cracknel in it, Endo Toret arrived with two local constables. It took several minutes to give a full explanation of the conspiracy of Sbit Daisan and the desert peregrines.

The farrier stared at the hross beside Hame. He had never seen an example of anything like this.

“Your discovery promises to change everything. At one time it was thought the hross could not be tamed. The peregrines appear to have done so.” He considered a moment. “Sbit Daisan must be arrested at once, then tried, for he conspired to destroy the farms of his small competitors by annihilating all their tarpans. His was to be the only one to survive and prosper. Then, the breeders will wish to organize an expedition to deal with the lunatics out on the desert. The tarpans taken out there must be rescued.”

Rue wrinkled his brow. “What about the hrosses? The peregrines hae full legal claim to them.”

All at once, the veterinarian’s dark brown eyes sparkled. He took the cheroot out of his mouth and threw it away. “If we can buy some of them, I am sure that our ranchers will be eager to carry out some breeding of hrosses and then find practical uses for them.”

Both men gazed dreamily at the hross, imagining its promising future all over Cayuga.

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