The Specter of the Wolf

“Why don’t you just call up a car from the Fleet, grandpa?”

I’d Fleeted over earlier to “help” replace the battery pack in my grandpa’s car, which involved me handing him tools that were already within his reach. In the typical manner of precocious children, I had also taken to explaining to him all the things I had recently learned that he already knew. At the age of seven, I was just beginning to understand why grandma called grandpa’s workshop a “Museum.” Thus, I’d taken it as my duty to challenge him on everything.

“Why do you play with toys?” he grunted.

“Because they’re fun?” I said.

“Maybe,” he muttered around the screws in the corner of his mouth, “but good toys keep your mind sharp, too. There’s no substitute for a sharp mind. It’s the only thing you’ll always have as long as you’re you.”

While it may have been bizarre that my grandfather still owned his own car, even more bizarre it was a Tesla Model S so old it might as well have run on gas. The car was silver, chrome, and it looked as new as a car that old could look. While I may have questioned it constantly, even I couldn’t deny its appeal. It had the same sort of functional, well-designed beauty as a great white shark. Every part spoke of engineering so good there was nothing left to improve. Except, of course, that it was almost a hundred years old and only an enthusiast like grandpa would think that owning one was normal behavior.

“Grandma said that owning a car was like owning a horse. So did my mom. And dad. And grandma.”

Grandpa only grunted. He’d finished fixing whatever he’d been fixing and was busy taping a 2D to the wall. I’d seen it about a million times. It was a 2D of my grandpa in the middle of a group of army guys with a bullet-gun. He never talked about the other guys in the picture and after the first few times he frowned at me, young as I was, I knew better than to ask.

“I checked my phone and you’re never more than two minutes away from the Fleet. See? And my mom said it’s way cheaper than owning a car because there’s no insurance. And Fleeting also means there’s less cars which is better for the environment,” I held up my phone, showing him a holo display of Fleet traffic zipping by his house. Any one of which could have taken him wherever he conceivably wanted to go at the press of a button and a few dollars.

Grandpa was too focused on the 2D to hear. Every time he got his old paper printer working and found usable inks for it, he entered a solemn almost religious silence as if he had performed a miracle. In later age, I realized it was something of a miracle. I would later calculate that it must have cost him about ten-thousand times as much to maintain the picture that way as it would have to put it on some e-paper or do a VR upload. Especially considering that the old ink he found decayed so rapidly. But he was particular about things. He treated the workshop like a fortress and even grandma’s “museum” lectures couldn’t breach its walls. Or maybe it was a fortress to hold out the present, which is probably what museums really are.

“It’s been fifty years now, hasn’t it?” Grandpa mumbled. He was looking at the date on the picture. I’d memorized it along time ago: July 7th, 2033.

“Grandpa?” I called again.

I was interrupted by the thunk of a package sliding down the Drone Chute. Grandpa didn’t so much as turn. Always eager for a delivery, I decided to get it for him. Picking up packages from the Drone Chute always filled me with the hope I’d catch Santa Claus there, or maybe one of his red and white drones would have malfunctioned. Then I’d get to go the North Pole and hang out with the elves at the Imagination Printer, which was a real and proper 3D Printer, where I could print any toy or even animal I could dream up. It’d be odd timing to find Santa in July, but a boy could dream.

The Chute door opened to reveal a crumbly old box. It wasn’t the opportunity to help Santa that I’d had in mind, but no child could resist the allure of a sealed package. I pulled out my pocket knife, which grandpa had given to me a month earlier after I showed him I could whittle a bar of soap without cutting myself, and sliced it open.

“Uncly,” I stumbled with sounding out the word, so I used my phone to scan for a phonetic pronunciation. I recall I had difficulty with words ending in vowels, and like most children of my age was too lazy to completely internalize reading until a few years later, “Uncle Frank! Uncle Frank sent us a package!” I held the white card above my head, victoriously.

“Good job sounding it out, kiddo,” it was impossible to tell if it was a joke or not.

I blushed. Grandpa didn’t like it when I used my phone to help me read. He said it made the mind lazy. I decided to hide my red face by inspecting the contents of the box. Under the wrapping, was an old fashioned paper book of some kind, full of 2D’s except they were all so faded there were hardly even any colors. Nothing but black and white. I couldn’t say how, but they were also of a different quality than the printed pictures on grandpa’s wall. As though they were, impossibly, even older.

“What is this?” I asked.

Grandpa laughed, but it wasn’t the jolly kind of laugh he had when he was picking me up or helping me read. It was a sad sort of laugh.

“It’s the family photo album. Your uncle Frank said the kids had him upload it so he didn’t need the originals anymore. My gain, I guess.”

I flipped through the pages, carefully. On the last page, was a man holding an even more primitive bullet gun than Grandpa had in his picture. The bullet-gun was so old it had a wooden stock, and the man with the gun was standing next to someone who looked like they were dressed up as a skeleton for Halloween. I sounded out the words on the bottom.

“Ne…ver For… get.”

Grandpa frowned for a moment, the kind of frown he’d had when I told him I didn’t need to carve because the 3D Printer could print out everything for me. The one he’d had when I told him that I didn’t need to know the street names because the Fleet navigated automatically. The same one he had when I asked him about the 2D he replaced every year.

“Let’s go for a drive, kiddo.”

He ruffled my hair, but the frown remained.

 

*****

 

In that place no eye can clearly see, in the dark unknown and uncertain mists, stalks the specter of the Wolf. Real and unreal, both vivid nightmare and awful reality, the Wolf paces in long slow strides toward the light of a fire and a cave and the apes inside it. What has called the Wolf no one can say, for the Wolf comes when it will and demands what it will and gives no explanation.

The Wolf’s eyes gleam golden by the flashes of the fire and one cannot help but see them to know that their vision is ancient. Old as the universe. Old as calamity and decay and entropy. As eternal and fundamental as death. Those eyes set themselves on the fire and the cave and fix keenly at the ape-shaped shadows huddling together for safety. Only one of those shadows stands apart.

“I come,” said the Wolf, sitting itself at the boundary between the light and the dark, “as promised by the Covenant of the Night of the First Fire. I challenge and present myself as challenge. I am the question. Who among you shall be my answer?”

The Wolf is but the latest shape of the First Darkness. As the First Fire grew and flickered and as bits of it failed, so too has the Wolf changed and dwindled and adapted. It is a Wolf, now, and because of this it has always been a wolf. Yet in the wake of countless shapes, the Wolf has left both paw prints and floods and famines.

The shadow of a single ape draws near until the ape itself emerges from out of the mouth of the cave. Reluctantly, the apeling turns its back to the fire, holding a bit of wood before itself in the trembling absurdity of its forepaws. A forepaw without even the illusion of a proper claw, but only five bits of useless wiggling meat.

“I challenge that which comes in challenge! I am the answer!” the apeling cried.

The wolf snorted. The apeling’s stick shook so violently that it seemed it must soon fall, but the apeling’s meaty fingers held it preciously, as though it was one of the pathetic weakling newborns of its race. The stick looked like all the other countless sticks the Wolf had crushed in its jaws, except for a bit of stone that had been fixed to the end.

“Why come you this night, apeling?” sneered the Wolf.

The apeling grew still then.

“I came to see and be made strong by seeing, as my father did and his father before him. To stare into the eyes of the Wolf is the fulfillment of the Covenant of the Night of the First Fire,” said the apeling.

The Wolf stepped forward from the mist and placed a single paw inside the cave’s circle of light.

“Very well, apeling,” it said.

 

*****

 

The Tesla silently drove itself out of Grandpa’s garage, down the gravel road of his farmhouse, and onto the main street. In only a few minutes we were surrounded by the rounder, more modern vehicles of the Fleet. The kind you could stand up in and move around in without any of the old-fashioned steering wheels or speedometers cluttering things up. The kind that were Loop-compatible so that you could drive across the nation in a little under four hours.

“You know, I have my Drive Alone license. And I’m chipped. Nothing bad could happen to me.” I gave grandpa a thumbs up, reminding him of the GPS tracker under my thumbnail that could summon an emergency response in minutes. The one I’d had since infancy, like all other children, everywhere.

“What do I always say about that, kiddo?”

I sighed.

“You’re not careful for the things you know about. You’re careful for the things you’re going to be surprised by. And you’re always going to be surprised by something,” I muttered.

Grandpa always insisted on taking me home himself, which my parents told me to take with good humor. In his day, the idea of just putting a child in a car and sending them on their way was unfathomable. Of course, back when he was young, kids hadn’t been chipped either.

To pass the time and hide my embarrassment, I perused the book of 2D’s in my lap. When that got boring, I’d look up and watch the people in the other cars driving by us. Most of them were reading or VR’ing or working on their computers. Sometimes, though, I’d see a single kid whisking off to do something and I’d have to hide my face. If I saw someone I knew I didn’t know how I would be able to explain myself. Once, I saw a girl in a Karate uniform practicing kicks and punches and I almost burned with jealousy.

“See that there?” Grandpa said, pointing at one of the 2D’s, “that’s a hand-pump and a wood stove. And that there? The pump… that’s this big metal gizmo here… drew up well water. I got half my muscles working that thing. I’d go over for the summers, he’d make me draw up water for the cows and chickens and split wood out back. Chopping wood is where I got the rest of my muscles. Why do you think he did that?”

Grandpa had the biggest hands of anyone I’d ever seen. When his fingers touched the page it looked like someone had put a tan pickle there as a bookmark. He’d told me once that anyone could get big muscles on their body by going to the gym or the right doctor, but that the only way you got muscles on your hands was by hard work.

“So chickens would have water and you could cook them later?”

I was suddenly very excited to hear about cooking chickens. Like every other modern child, I’d only ever eaten Guilt Free Vat Meat, and I was only a little bit aware that cooking chickens involved killing them.

“That’s part of it, probably. But he also did it so I’d appreciate the running water in the house. Appreciate the heat when it was cold outside. Appreciate what it takes to make all of it work. Do you understand?”

I frowned.

Looking out the window, I saw a boy go by with his lips and tongue pressed against the window making faces at me. He seemed so proud of himself to be driving alone. He seemed gleeful to see a kid my age riding with an adult. I remember how proud I’d been when I’d got my Drive Alone License, and how I wouldn’t even let my parents drive with me to school after that. I’d even taken a HyperLoop all by myself, once. Yet… I could feel the knife in my pocket pressing against my leg. For some reason, I pitied the boy making faces. I bet he didn’t have a grandpa to give him a knife. I bet he didn’t know what it was like to be afraid of cutting off your fingers or how good it felt when you didn’t. I was prouder of that knife than I’d ever been of my Alone License.

“What’s Buchenwald?” I asked.

It was written in the upper corner of the photo on the last page. I’d been sounding it out in my head for the last several minutes. Grandpa cleared his throat and promptly closed the book of 2D’s.

“It’s a place in Germany. Something bad happened there. There was a war.”

And then Grandpa pointed at a medal he had hanging from the mirror at the front of his car, the one he called the rear view. The medal was silver and made from two triangles set on top of each other. He pulled it free and put it in my hand.

“Grandma says there won’t be anymore wars. Not anywhere in the whole world. She said it’s okay and you shouldn’t be sad anymore,” I didn’t know why I said it but it’s what everyone at school kept telling me.

Turning the medal over in my hands, I noticed how parts of it had been tarnished black with age.

“I said the same to my great-grandfather. He gave me that necklace and he said ‘You never see the really bad things coming, and they’re always the same when they come back even if they look different.’ A man gave that necklace to my great-grandfather. A man who’d done impossible things to keep it safe. A man who shouldn’t even have been alive. And do you know why that man gave this to my grandfather even though it was the only thing he had?”

I shook my head and my eyes saw nothing but that little piece of metal in grandpa’s giant hand.

“My great-grandfather was a man who made bad things end. Who saw bad things for being bad and stopped them. The man wanted to thank him and he wanted him to have something to remember him by. And he said, ‘Gold is the metal of fools because it never tarnishes and stays always bright. Silver is the metal of the diligent and the wise because it must be attended and polished to sparkle.’ That’s what it takes. You have to know bad things happen and you have to make them stop. You have to polish the silver.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

And I didn’t. Not then. Not until much later.

Grandpa laughed again, but it wasn’t his normal laugh. More like the laugh he’d had when I told him that I didn’t need to know how to carve, or know the name of the streets, and suddenly I was scared.

“Well, I guess I’ll show you then.”

He pressed a few buttons on the faded touchscreen console of his Tesla… and very slightly the movements of the car changed. It veered the smallest bit to the left before grandpa’s big hands took the wheel and corrected the motion. Even though the force of the correction was minute, I felt certain the sudden motion would throw me from the car.

My mouth went dry. The car wasn’t driving itself anymore. Grandpa was driving the car. I froze in terror, heart hammering.

“It’s not dangerous. Every person my age knows how to do this,” Grandpa said cheerily, as if nothing at all was wrong. As if this was not terrifying. As if he were in complete control. “We never thought of it as a big deal. The same way my great-grandpa didn’t think much about chopping firewood or pumping water. Here kiddo, put your hands on the wheel.”

All I could do was stare to either side and remark how very close the other cars were. How little distance separated us. Not even ten meters in some cases.

“Kiddo, did I let the knife cut you?” he asked.

Without even thinking about it, I’d been about to say my Safe Word to trigger my thumb chip. And for the life of me I couldn’t seem to move my thumb away from my mouth. Then the big hands enfolded mine and put them on the steering wheel.

“There you go! Scared, ain’tcha? Don’t worry, we’re still in a residential area and this is slow enough to be safe. Plus, being scared is good as long as you don’t stop thinking. This is the thing I wanted to show you. This is how you face fears.”

“Someone died last year, grandpa. Driving on the road. We saw her picture in school,” I said in a small voice.

It’d been all over the news. People had been yelling about it, demanding action, wondering what kind of world it was where someone died Fleeting to work just because there was a hurricane. There’d even been congressional hearings.

“We won’t. I’m here. This is part of what it takes to polish the silver. This is the knowledge that safety keeps from you. I’ll show you.”

He let go of the wheel and suddenly I was driving at the ludicrous speed of thirty-five miles per hour.

I was terrified.

I held death in my hands and it was only by my frantic will that I kept the car on the road.

And somehow, in those moments, I also knew what it was to be a man and what my grandpa had been talking about.

 

*****

 

“As promised the first time your Fire touched my Dark, I will never stop trying to Destroy you,” the Wolf growled and leapt.

The apeling darted back, but not fast enough to miss the Wolf’s teeth. A red wound opened on the apeling’s hairless calf and a bit of meat slid down the Wolf’s throat. With a mouth full of red teeth the Wolf smiled and howled.

“You were the Dark and we made a Fire,” whispered the apeling rising, leaning on the stick for strength. Such meaningless words, but the apes had made a habit recently of speaking to things that were not there.

The Wolf leapt again but this time the butt of the stick hit its head and drove it back. But the apeling stumbled, limping, weak and scared.

“You were the Cold and we made clothes for Warmth,” the apeling grunted. The other apes were too far away to hear. Perhaps this apeling was crazier than the others. The ones they sent to challenge him tended to be the broken in some way.

The Wolf dashed to one side and lunged. It was only the barest moment in which the apeling managed to put the stick in the way and deny the Wolf the pleasure of its throat. The stick cracked internally with a sound like shattering ice and the Wolf knew the wood would not withstand another attack.

“You were-” the apeling began but the Wolf screamed.

“I was the drought that made you thirst, and the famines that starved you, and the age that crept on you day by day so that even if you survived the rest I still killed you! And I am the dread despair in your heart as you make ready to die! And I am the Nothing that comes After!” the Wolf spat and pressed forward in a fury.

The Wolf fought as it had always fought, in every shape back to the Night of the First Fire. Tireless and vicious. Cold and cruel. It did not will or want. It did not dream or desire. It was as implacable as causality. What the Wolf really was, was in everything and in the course of eternity it would destroy everything… and it hated everything that wasn’t already dead.

And now it was a Wolf, so its jaws sought the throat of the apeling.

The sharp bit of stone at the end of stick revealed a sinister purpose. It slashed the Wolf’s skin. Gasping, the Wolf realized that the stone cut and that it cut as the stick had never cut. That in some stupid and impossible way that this meant the claws of the apes were now as numerous as the stones of the Earth. The Wolf howled again, this time in pain, as the stone opened another gash in its hide.

At the end of the stick, the stone had transformed from a piece of rock into a piece of death.

“You were the Wolf and we made a Spear,” whispered the apeling.

The Wolf jumped with its last strength…

And the apeling stabbed it in the heart.

 

*****

 

Standing on an asteroid, traveling at tens of thousands of kilometers an hour, I gave my Captain a thumbs up. Some thirty meters above me, she rolled her eyes through the command module window. The thumbs up was a joke between us. She’d just asked me if I was safe to proceed and with my thumbs up I reminded her I still had my thumbnail chip in case anything went wrong. After all, Earth’s emergency services were only six months away by the best ion-drives.

“Asshole,” she said.

“Hey, do you think Hawthorne or Canaveral is going to want to hear you talk that way? All these logs get beamed back, y’know. Anchor points for the engine look good.”

The thing about standing on an asteroid is that you have to be very careful where you step and how you move. Both because there really isn’t anything you could call gravity and also because if you haven’t quite melted off all the things that are going to turn into steam just from being warmed by your foot you’re probably going to die. I’d seen men thrown into space during training. If their suit wasn’t breached, they spent a long time falling into the black waiting for death. Of course, I had a Maneuvering Unit in that eventuality and we’d put all the shuttles lights on this spot for the last two days to evaporate everything, which I guess meant I wasn’t very brave at all.

“Hawthorne light delay is over an hour, Unum is over thirty minutes. They’re not going to waste the bandwidth, jackass. Final exhaust check?”

I climbed up the engine and peered down the thrust nozzle, checking for any debris that might suddenly decide to explode when we started the engine. I’d had to do some drilling on the anchor points and it had made a mess of things. I mean, the engine was designed to throw explosions out into space of course, but only a very specific kind of explosion. I’d also spent the last few weeks knocking all the hard rocky bits we hadn’t wanted from this asteroid into space and that tended to get messy as the debris didn’t really go anywhere and it just sort of floated around. Every now and again, a chunk of methane ice found its way someplace it didn’t belong and did a few billion dollars worth of damage.

“We’re clear.”

“Then get back inside and let’s get this thing moving. I miss gravity. Stay sharp.”

“You sound like my grandpa.”

“He must’ve been a wise man.”

“Well, he got me interested in steering dangerous objects at a young age so he must’ve had some foresight.”

“Then never mind. He sounds like a huge jackass. Must be where you got it from.”

“No one’s perfect.”

I jumped up toward the shuttle, not bothering to engage my thrusters which was against protocol. But standing on a giant chunk of rock and mostly water-ice only got so safe and besides, when we got to Mars, I was going to miss having a thirty meter vertical leap. Space tumbled by, up became down, and I grabbed the rung on the airlock at the last moment. With what I could only describe as wistfulness, I savored the jolt in my wrist as my bones absorbed all that momentum. I wouldn’t be doing many EVA’s in the days ahead and I couldn’t say for sure I’d ever be out this far again.

Figuring I’d indulged enough, I climbed inside the airlock and stripped off my spacesuit. The Star of David necklace my grandfather had given me got caught for a moment in the collar, as it almost always did. I had to take an extra few seconds to pull it free. I only ever wore it on missions, as otherwise everyone thought I was Jewish. Which wasn’t terrible or anything, of course, but I didn’t really feel like sharing the story of its origin with anyone but crewmates. Besides, the whole thing about staying vigilant and sharp was something only Martians really understood. The few other Earthborn people I’d try to explain it too before leaving my birth planet behind had only talked about how convenient robots were and how they owed it to their ancestors to enjoy the pleasures of Earth. Everyone that I’d shared it with on Mars had understood immediately. In fact, my only regret in leaving Earth had been that my grandfather hadn’t been able to make the trip with me. He’d applied for launch school with me as a joke, but he’d still been pissed when they turned down his application on the basis of him being eighty-five years old.

“Ready to make an ocean on Mars?” I hollered.

“I’ll settle for an atmosphere that doesn’t freeze dry everything,” Captain called back from the command module.

Five teams, counting us, had gone out to secure water-ice and nitrogen-ice asteroids and over the next ten years we were going to smash them into the Martian poles. After that, there’d be work to do on the orbital mirrors to heat the atmosphere. Then probably a lot more asteroids. After that, there’d be an ocean. And after that, when Mars got so boring only biologists could bear the tedium of tweaking the ecology and robots were doing all the courageous jobs, there was always Europa. Or Venus.

I pulled my way down the center shaft to the command module, and strapped into my seat, giving a thumbs up as the Captain flipped a switch. The asteroid engines roared to life and slowly, not so much as you could tell, the asteroid changed its orbit. The only visible sign was a trail of vaporous debris from the rocket nozzle glimmering for a moment in the ship’s lights as it disappeared into the black.

“I can’t believe we convinced the Unum Congress to let us do this,” Captain muttered.

“Oh yeah, I mean, it would be a shame if we screwed up and transformed Mars into a barren, desolate wasteland,” I said.

She laughed. We’d said pretty much the same thing in the Congressional Hearings when we proposed the mission. Unum had just celebrated reaching the ten million population mark, and everyone was sick of so-called “Conservationist” thinking. Meaning “Earth Thinking.” The Earth President had teleconferenced in to voice staunch opposition to all terraforming measures, declaring them unnecessary and reckless, but as he was on about a fifteen minute delay nothing he had said had been timely or dramatic enough to sway anyone’s opinion.

The Martian President, however, having the benefit of actually being a Martian on Mars, spoke a great deal about the first Colonial Transporter. She told stories of her grandmother installing the first 3D printing factories in a hollow lava flow beneath the surface of Unum. She spoke about the hardships faced by the first fifty when there hadn’t even been a life-sustaining capsule on Mars, let alone a city, unless they put it there. Then she had spoken about the unknown and the need to face danger. About courage being the price of progress. About what it means to save a people and what it means to be a people worth saving.

The vote to proceed had returned unanimous.

“Delta v is within margins, stresses are within predicted norms, all engines optimal,” Captain reported.

Someone popped a champagne cork. Probably Mueller or Shotwell. The cork hit the command module window and bounced back into my lap. I picked it up and for a moment held it over my chest, near the old Star of David medal. For no particular reason, I decided to keep it. Might be a thing to give a grandkid, someday.

“Ready to celebrate?” I called.

Champagne got messy in 0g. Unless we all drank very quickly.

I took one last look at the exhaust gases disappearing into the void. For a moment, one brief second at the edge of my ability to perceive changes, the gases seemed to take the shape of a wolf.

 

*****

 

The Wolf gasped, dead and undead, changing but not yet ready to complete the change. The ape pulled the spear out of its heart and began cutting at the Wolf’s belly, spilling the Wolf’s intestines, as the ape prepared to strip its hide. Without the benefit of lungs, the Wolf spoke.

“I accept your spear as answer. You win the challenge. Yet I ask you the same question I asked the People after the Covenant of the Night of the First Fire. Will you send your children to me when I come again? When there is safety by the Fire and the land is fat and there is no need to face me? Will you still send them against me in whatever form I take?”

The ape clutched the Wolf’s heart in its hands and held it aloft. Even in the dark and the mist the organ was bright red. The other apes in the cave cheered and a few more of them emerged from the cave, though they were still distant.

“The answer is as it ever was. We are not fooled for Fire fades. That is as true now as it was on the night of the Covenant, when in Defeating your Dark we ceased to be what we were and became the People. Even now, we remember that the thing which we are is not in the Fire but the Making of Fire. When you question, I will send my children in answer. When you challenge, my children will challenge you. Whatever form you take, we will Defeat you.”

The Wolf felt its head being cut from its body.

“One day, you will not,” it whispered, “One day the Fire will be too bright, too comforting and too dazzling to leave. The land will be too fat and life will be too easy. Your children will grow weak and foolish and I will be too dangerous to confront. And I will wait as the Fire dwindles and I will remember the Covenant even as they forget the Making of Fire. I will wait as the fat chokes them. When I question, none will know to answer. When I challenge, none will stand opposed. I will have you then. I need only be Forever. I need only be what I am.”

The ape threw the bloody hide of the Wolf over itself like a cloak. The ape’s people surrounded it, leading it toward the fire and the cave, dancing and singing the old songs. The songs of the stars that had guided them to this new land. The songs of the making of things. The songs of the Covenant of the Night of the First Fire. And the new song of the Death of the Wolf.

“Perhaps,” said the ape, “but that day is not this day.”

 

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One thought on “The Specter of the Wolf

  1. To make the Night less Empty. To not Choke. To be Wary.

    Yeah, I’m at risk of sounding really pretentious. Good story! I especially liked the idea of an Earth too gentrified to discover anything. To take risks.

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