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As soon as the Marsar Shift began, Adacee newscaster Keth Deboll had the feeling that he wasn't going to like this assignment. In part, it might be simply a reaction to the pitch-blackness which closed down instantly on the pseudospace ship. He knew the lights in the personnel section around him were on. Yet not the faintest glow was visible anywherenot even from Furnay's control console directly before him. It was the deadest, emptiest black he had ever experienced . . . the kind of black that might be left after the Universe ended. The thought came suddenly that, if he had to stay in it for any length of time, it would drain everything out of him and leave him sitting here, an empty, black shell, as dead as the rest of it.
However, the shift wouldn't last long. The Navy men with whom Keth Deboll had talked during his briefing the day before had emphasized the eerie aspects of Space Three, no doubt deliberately. Keth knew he wasn't welcome on board, and he couldn't have cared less. It had taken a great deal of maneuvering and string-pulling by the Adacee News Viewer System to get him the assignment on one of the fourteen pseudospace ships presently in operation. The Navy wanted more money for its enormously expensive Space Three projects; and in the end the argument had prevailed that the best way to get popular support for their wishes was to have a popular newscaster provide an enthusiastic, first-hand projected report on one of the sorties into pseudospace. And there were simply no more popular newscasters in the Federation that year than Keth Deboll.
But the men he would actually be on shipboard with hadn't liked the arrangement much, especially the provision that Keth was to have the run of the ship insofar as he didn't interfere with operations. And like many other people who dealt with him in person, they might not have cared much for Keth. He was undersized and thin, still on the young side but alreadysince he lived wellsporting a small, round paunch. A point which seemed to irk the Navy scientists in particular was that he hadn't bothered to take notes on the information they had given him for the telecast. Keth never did take notes, of course; he had nearly perfect recall. But they didn't know that.
There was a brief, sharp tingling in the palm of his right handa signal from Furnay, his technician, that the telecast, which would be transmitted to normspace by special Navy communicators, was beginning; and Keth automatically began to talk . . .
As usual, he didn't pay much attention to what he was saying. It wasn't necessary. The relevant material was stored in his mind, already arranged into a number of variant patterns. Depending on the circumstances, it would emerge in one sequence or another, always coherently, smoothly, effectively. He discovered he had started now with the statement that this was another milestone in newscasting historythe first direct report from pseudospace or Space Three. They were shifting at the moment into the field of an entirely new class of energies, a region where space appeared to exist only as a useful symbol, or as an illusionary medium in the recording instruments. The discovery of pseudospace five years ago had been a triumph of human ingenuity; its existence had been established by the calculations of Navy mathematicians, and the means of contacting it derived from those same calculations. Since then two new mathematical systems already had been developed to provide even a theoretical understanding of the problems encountered in the further exploration of this weird new stratum of the Universe.
He turned briefly to technicalities. They would remain in pseudospace for the period of one hour less a few minutes, in a Navy ship especially designed and constructed to permit even temporary existence there. Aside from the standard drives, it was equipped with an engine which made the shift possible. This engine would be shut off as soon as the shift was accomplished, would be turned on again ten minutes before the scheduled return because it took five minutes to build up the required power for the shift. One hour was at present the maximum period a ship could remain safely in Space Three.
The shift engine would be shut off for the curious reason that although motion in Space Three was impossible, motion relative to normal space and subspace while in Space Three was not only possible but greatly augmented. What produced it was any use of energy by the intruding vessel. The result was that a pseudospace ship always emerged into normspace again at a point removed from its point of entryand at a distance far greater than it could otherwise have covered by the full use of standard drive engines in the same period of time. The potential value of this phenomenon for space travel was obvious; but at present there was no fixed ratio between the energy expended by a ship and the distance it moved, and the direction in which it would move was equally unpredictable. Many of the multiple studies programmed for today's one-hour shift were designed to yield additional information on precisely those points.
Their shift had been initiated in the vicinity of Orado. They would release an exceptional amount of energy because of a demonstration graciously prepared by the Navy to illustrate certain interesting qualities of pseudospace to Adacee's billions of viewers. So all they knew definitely was that when they emerged again, they would find themselves somewhere within the space boundaries of the Federation. The exact location would be determined after they had arrived.
Keth Deboll came to that point at the instant the Marsar Shift ended and the ship lights reappeared. He hadn't consciously planned it that way; but he'd been told how long the shift would take, and the material stored in his mind had re-sorted itself so that he'd have the preliminary explanations cleared up when the moment came.
He went on without a break into the next part. In a moment the vision screens would go on. He and Furnay had been provided with a smaller duplicate of the main screen at the far end of the personnel section; and Adacee's viewers would get the first live look afforded the general public of the instruments' rendition of a nonspatial energy field. They would be seeing something no eyes had seen, or could have seen, before Man's supreme intelligence, determination and courage found a way to begin to map Space Threeperhaps eventually to make use of it.
The illusionary medium of Space Three appeared abruptly. Keth's stomach seemed to turn over twice. He had the feeling that he was being pulled painlessly but inexorably apart. His mouth went on talking but he hadn't the faintest idea now of what he said. The medium was a bright pink and white, gave the impression of vast but unstable depth. The colors shifted in slowly changing patterns. Something like a transparent vapor streamed by from right to leftKeth had the impression it was a considerable distance awaylike clouds moving across a summer sky. Of course, "distance" had no actual meaning here.
And neither, his voice reminded the viewers, did the word "cold" retain its familiar meaning in Space Three. It was cold beyond any previous understanding of the term, not merely in the sense of an utter absence of heat, but cold on the ascending scale, so to speakcold above cold above cold.
This was the great hazard of Space Three, the factor which would have made it impenetrable, if its existence had been known, to life before Man. For the reason Man could penetrate it was the great discovery of the Marsar Field . . .
This whole universe-of-the-moment, Keth decided, was being twisted slowly in two directions at once! Not only Space Three in the screen, but the pseudospace ship itself, and he and Furnay in the seat beside him. He couldn't actually see anything to tell him why he knew that, but he knew it, and it was an extraordinarily unpleasant thing to know. He heard Furnay swallowing noisilyno harm done, the filters would catch itand began to wish he had eaten a less healthy breakfast an hour ago . . .
The Marsar Energy Field, his voice was continuing smoothly, coated the outer boxlike hull of the pseudospace ship. The personnel section in the center of the ship, where they now were, was another box, separated from the other compartments of the ship by gravity pressors. In other words, the personnel section was suspended, floating free within the ship; and it also was coated with the Field.
This was a very necessary precaution because the Marsar Field was the only thing which stood now between them and the ultimate cold of Space Threeand it would be demonstrated immediately what that ultracold did to objects from normal space which lacked the Field's protection . . .
Keth had come to his feet, still speaking, and was moving along an open aisle toward an adjoining part of the personnel section. He wasn't concerned about getting beyond the range of the instruments; it was Furnay's department to cover him wherever he was in the ship, and Furnay would do it. He stopped at another screen where two Navy technicians were sitting. The expectancy in their faces as he approached had told him they were hoping for signs that Space Three was churning the unwelcome guest's brain along with assorted other innards; so he flashed them the famous Keth Deboll grin without interrupting his easy flow of talk. They swung back disappointedly to their switches and buttons.
"And these are the two gentlemen selected to carry out the demonstration . . . " Keth gave their full names, which shook them a little, went on explaining each move they made as they made it, never at a loss, never hesitant, enjoying his control of the situation and of the continuing awful feeling of internal and external distortion . . .
The pseudospace ship had brought another vessel into Space Three with ita chunky, old-fashioned siege boat, of no greater length than a destroyer but covered with armor of the densest, toughest workable material known, designed to move in against the fire of heavy planet-based guns and remain operational. Unmanned because it was to be sacrificed now for the benefit of Adacee's viewers, it hung in the screen, gradually increasing in size. The two ships were in motion relative both to normal space and to each other, Keth explainedthe siege boat only because its Marsar Field and the shift engine with which it had been equipped were giving off energy while the pseudospace ship was additionally using its standard drives to maneuver closer to the intended victim . . . but not too close because any contact with another solid object would collapse its Marsar Field
Two devices had appeared in the screen about midway between the two ships, and Keth's description slid over to them, quickening. Telecontrolled projectile guns, each balancing a detached four-inch steel sphere in its launching field, spheres and guns both shielded by the Marsar effect, of course . . . and now one had veered about, his voice announced, rising in excitement, had aimed at the doomed siege boat, and the sphere was launched.
Close-up of a steel ball seemingly motionless against the frozen pink and white of pseudospace, then the armored flank of the siege boat swinging into view, swinging in toward it. The four-inch missile struck and adhered.
The close-up flowed out, became the previous picture, now including the projected image of a huge transparent time dial, a second hand sweeping around through its ten marked sections. As the hand touched the tenth mark, the dial vanished, the other projectile gun swerved, and the second steel ball was launched. Keth abruptly stopped speaking.
This time, there was no close-up. A moment passed; and then the siege boat shattered.
It was not a violent process but an awesomely quiet one. Cracks flicked about the massively armored hull, joined and deepened. The boat began to drift apart in sections, each section splitting again and again as it came separate. For an instant, the shift engine showed, protected by its own Marsar and pressor fields from the debacle around it, then vanished, on its way back to normspace. Keth felt a stab of annoyance. The Navy had insisted on salvaging the engine, and its intact appearance meant a fractional loss in overall effect.
But otherwise the picture of absolute destruction was complete. Chunks of battle-armor capable of resisting the pounding of ultrabeams continued to crack into fragments, fragments splintered into dust, Keth's voice quietly accompanying the siege boat's destruction. For a moment, a glittering fog, which still retained a suggestion of the vessel's outlines, was visible; then Space Three was clear again. Probably not one in a million of Adacee's viewers had noticed the simultaneous dissolution of the projectile guns, triggered off from the pseudospace ship.
And this was the explanation for the dual protection given the personnel section, Keth continued. If, for any reason, their ship's outer Marsar Field should fail . . . and Marsar Fields had been known to fail for reasons never explained . . . the rest of the ship would, within seconds, become a homogenous, brittle-frozen mass. But the personnel section would remain intact within its own field, and since it contained the shift engine, it could be brought back by itself to normal space to await the arrival of rescue ships.
In spite of such precautions, one pseudospace ship not too long ago had simply stopped communicating and disappeared during a shift. Space Three remained a medium of both unfathomed opportunities and unfathomed dangers, and until . . .
Keth again stopped listening to what he was saying. It was familiar ground: a pitch for money. The Navy was getting what it had paid for by providing the stage for a Deboll newscast while Keth moved toward the instrument room at the far end of the section. There he would introduce several scientists, question them individually about their specialties, then switch back to a few minor demonstrations . . . and, blessedly, the gruesome hour would be over.
A sharp whisper suddenly beside his left ear. "Keth! Get back here!"
What did Furnay want? Keth turned, started back toward the technician, not too hurriedly, mind racing. His commentary veered off from the interviews toward which it had been leading, took a new tack which would provide an opening for whatever had caught Furnay's attention. Whatever had caused that interruption could be no minor matter.
As he slid into his seat before the screen, Furnay's filtered voice said hurriedly on his left, "That dot in the upper right corner! It appeared just a moment ago and it's getting larger fast"
Keth's eyes flicked over the screen, found the dot. More than a dot . . . an irregular little dark blotch against the blazing white of Space Three, changing shape constantly and expanding visibly as he stared at it. For an instant, he felt cold fury. They hadn't mentioned anything like this in yesterday's briefing, and in seconds he'd have to be talking about it, explaining it glibly! His hand already had pressed a button on the little intercom rod in his pocket which would connect him with one of the observers at the big screen, the man who was standing by to fill in if Keth felt unable to interpret what the screens showed.
He hadn't expected to use that button . . . and now the fool didn't respond! He pressed again, repeatedly, ragingly.
A loud voice announced:
"Emergency stations! Repeatemergency stations! Unidentified object approaching . . . "
Keth drew a sharp breath. They didn't know what it was! A new Space Three phenomenon in the middle of the newscastwhat a break! WHAT a break! He swung into the situation instantly, opening the pickup filters, which had been blurring out irrelevant sounds, and every intercom, catching commands and responses crossing the personnel section his voice running along with them, expanding, improvising . . . The drive engines came on with a muted roar; the pseudospace ship moved away, out of the course of the unknown object which had been headed directly towards themand which, thirty seconds later, again was headed directly towards them. The ship suddenly picked up speed in dead earnest.
They had turned on the shift engine, Keth announced to Adacee's viewers, voice shaking with excitement; but of course, it would take five minutes for the engine to develop enough power to permit their return to normal space. Meanwhile the blob, the blotchthe unidentified objectnow four or five inches across in the screenwas sliding sideways out of sight as the ship turned away from it. It was still vague . . . objects more than two miles apart in normspace terms could not be clearly defined in pseudospace; but there was a suggestion, more than a suggestion, of bunched tentacles trailing from that shifting shape. It definitely, almost definitely, was following them
Furnay was stabbing buttons desperately, as the object vanished from the screen, to get them switched over to another one where it would be visible again. The Adacee feedback tinkle sounded in Keth's left ear; a jubilant voice whispered, "Terrific, Deboll! Terrific! None of us can imagine how you did it, but keep the thing running! The interest indicator jumped to absolute top in less than thirty seconds and is staying right there. You sound scared to death!"
He was scared to death, Keth discovered. His knees rattled together whenever they came within four inches of each other . . . And now the screen blinked twice and shifted to a slightly different view of pseudospace.
"AWK!" Furnay said hoarsely.
The pursuing object couldn't be much more than two miles behind them now because its details were trembling on the verge of becoming discernible. Only two miles, Keth repeated, stunned, to himselfwith the ship roaring along on its space drive!
And with that, the personnel section went black.
Keth heard a thump beside him, put out his hand and found Furnay collapsed forward on the control console. He wasn't sure whether the technician had fainted or not, and he started shaking him by the shoulder. The intercom was still full of voices and his own voice was continuing automatically. "We have begun the Marsar Shift! Apparently, we escaped with only seconds to spare! What this . . . "
"Mr. Deboll," the intercom told him sharply, "the newscast was cut off twenty seconds ago! Communications is pre-empting all channels until we have completed the shift to normspace and established our new location there."
Twenty seconds ago would have been the instant they entered the shift. Oh, not bad, Keth thought giddily. Not bad at all! The last impression Adacee's viewers had been given was of that horrific unknown pursuer closing in. And now minutes of silence before the ship's escape was confirmedit would be the sensation of the month!
"Shift ending," the intercom said. "Remain at your stations . . . "
The lights came on. The screen before Keth remained black for an instant. Then something flickered in it, and he was looking out at clouds and rivers of blazing stars.
Somebody cheered. After that, there was a dead stillness for perhaps half a second . . .
Somebody else yelled hoarsely. Keth shot up half out of his seat, stayed crouched, bent forward, staring at the screen.
The stars on the right were being obscured by a darkness which came flowing out over them . . . a darkness which extended broad, whipping tendrils and grew, covering half the screen, two thirds of it. Voices were shouting, and at the last moment, before the screen was completely blanked out, Keth glimpsed something like a section of a huge, rubbery tube swinging down toward him through space.
The personnel section seemed to slue around. The deck came up under Keth, threw him stumbling half across Furnay. He grasped the technician's shoulders to right himself.
"Main drive dead!" the intercom bellowed incredulously.
There was the sluing motion again, this time in reversed direction. For a moment, stars reappeared in one corner of the screen, racing through itas if, Keth thought, the ship were spinning wildly through space. The deck heaved. He staggered, pitched forward, then back, tripped and went down. Something hard slammed the side of his head, and his mind went blank.
"He's coming around now," Furnay's voice was saying. "Hey, Keth, wake up!"
Keth opened his eyes. He was lying in the seat before the screen, tilted backward. Furnay was on one side of him, somebody else stood on the other side. He jerked his head up to look at the screen. It was full of stars.
"What's happened?" he gasped.
"We're no longer in danger, Mr. Deboll," the other man said reassuringly. He was in his shirt sleeves and closing a flat container full of medical instruments. "Exactly what did happen isn't at all clear, but we should know shortly."
"Captain Roan," the intercom said, "please come to Station Three at once!"
The man smiled at Keth, said to Furnay: "He'll be all right now," and hurried off with his container.
"That's the doctor," Furnay said. "You cut your head pretty bad, but he sealed it." Furnay looked pale and shaken. "That thing, whatever it was, went back to Space Three. Or at least, it's gone. I came to in the middle of it all, while it was coming aboard . . . "
"Coming aboard?" Keth repeated blankly. "You were hallucinating, Furnay. That thing was a hundred times bigger than this ship! I saw part of it close up."
"Well, something came on board," Furnay said doggedly. "Ask anybody. First there was an awful banging over the intercom from somewhere else on the ship. Then somebody yelled that all three ship locks were being opened."
Furnay looked at him. "Keth, nobody here was opening them, believe me! Then there was more banging here and there for a while. They were trying to find out what was going on out there, of course, but the intership screens were too blurred to make out anything. That went on for a while." Furnay wet his lips. "Then the lock to the personnel section began to open . . . "
"That's right," Furnay said. "It came right in here."
"What came right in here?" Keth demanded savagely.
The technician spread his hands. "Nobody really got a look at it, Keth! The air sort of got thicknot to breathe; it was more like you were trying to look through syrup. Same thing that had been blurring the intership screens apparently. It only lasted about a minute. Then the air turned clear and the lock here closed. Maybe a minute later, the ship screens cleared, and the three big locks all closed together. Nobody had seen anything. Right after that, everything went black again."
"Marsar Shift black, you mean?"
Furnay nodded. "We were shifting to Space Three. That seems to be why it came in hereto start the shift engine. But somebody reversed the field right away and we came back to normspace. The thing was gone, and the main problem now seems to be that our space drive is almost out. We're barely able to move. But the transmitters started working again . . . "
"They were out?" Keth asked.
"They went blank about the time the drive engines stopped," Furnay said. "Then, as soon as the thing left, they started up again. The communication boys called for help, and there's a Space Scout squadron four days away headed toward us now . . . "
"Four days away?"
"Well, we're way outside of the Hub. That five-minute run on full drive, while the shift engine was warming up, brought on the biggest Space Three jump ever recorded . . . Where are you going?"
Keth was climbing to his feet. "Where do you think? We still have a newscast running. I'm going to get hold of the brass, find out exactly what they know, and get Communication to release a channel so we can start beaming it back. This is the biggest . . . "
"Wait a minute, Keth!" Furnay looked worried. "This is a Navy ship and we're operating under emergency regulations at the moment." He nodded at the open personnel section lock fifty feet away. "The brass is outside in the ship, checking things over. Everyone else has been ordered to remain at their stations. And they figure this is our station."
Keth grunted irritably, looked around. A gold-braided jacket and cap lay across a chair a few feet away. He went over, glanced around again, put them on.
"They're the doctor's," Furnay said.
"He won't miss them. Sit tight here."
Keth walked down the aisle toward a food dispenser fifteen feet from the open lock. The borrowed jacket and cap were decidedly too big for him, and from moment to moment he was in partial view of various groups in the section; but everyone was too involved in discussing recent events to pay him much attention. He paused at the dispenser, punched a button at random and received a tube of liquid vitamins. Half turning, he flicked a glance from under the cap brim about the part of the section he could see, moved on to the lock and stepped quietly through it.
There was no one in sight on the other side. He turned to the right along the passage through which he and Furnay had been conducted to the personnel section a little over an hour ago. The main entrance lock was just beyond its far end, out of sight. He might find something there to tell him how to get to the engine room. Since they were having trouble with the drives, that was presumably where the investigating senior officers would be.
At the end of the passage, he stopped, startled. The lock room was almost entirely filled with an assortment of items he found himself unable to identify. One wall was lined to the ceiling with luminous hexagonal boxes arranged like a honeycomb. Against them leaned bundled extrusions which looked like steel with bubbles of light trickling slowly through it. Completely blocking the lock was a great mass of rainbow-colored globes two feet in diameter, which appeared to be stuck together. The weirdest item was stacked by the hundreds along the left wall . . . transparent plastic blocks, each containing something which looked partly like a long-haired gloomy monkey and partly like a caterpillar.
Keth blinked at the arrangement, mouth open, for a moment, went over and touched a finger gingerly against one of the globes. It felt warmaround a hundred and ten degrees, he decided. Scowling and muttering to himself, he went off down another passage.
He passed a closed door, hesitated, returned and opened it. The area beyond was filled about equally by transparent sacks, bulging with what looked like white diamonds, and large, dark-red cylinders. The cylinders were groaning softly. Keth closed the door, opened another one thirty feet farther on, glanced in and hurriedly slammed it shut. He walked on, shaking his head, his mouth working nervously.
A minute or two later, he saw a sign which said ENGINE ROOMMAINTENANCE above an opened lock. Keth entered, found himself on the upper level of the engine room with a spider web of catwalks running here and there about the machinery. From below came the sound of voices.
He edged out on one of the catwalks, peered down. Half a dozen men, two of them in uniform, stood about an open hatch from which another uniformed man, the engineering officer, was just emerging. These were the ship's senior officers, and every one of them, Keth reminded himself, was also one of the Federation Navy's top scientists. They were too far off to let him understand what they were talking about, but if he got within hearing range without being discovered, he should gather information they wouldn't volunteer for the purposes of a newscast. He drew back out of sight, located a ladder along the wall and climbed down to the main level.
Guided by their voices, he threaded his way among the machines toward the group. There was a sudden, loud slamthe hatch being closed again. Then the voices were coming toward him on the other side of the massive steel bole along which he had been moving. Keth flattened himself quickly into a shallow niche of the machine, stayed still.
They came out into an intersection of passages on Keth's left and stopped there. He held his breath. If they looked over at him now, they couldn't miss seeing him. But the engineering officer was speaking and their attention was on him.
"Up to a point," he was saying, "the matter is now clear. It removed our fuel plates and replaced them with its own . . . "
Keth's ears seemed to flick forwards. What was that? His thoughts began to race.
"Those plates," the man went on, "are producing energy. In fact, they have a really monstrous output. But the energy doesn't do much for our drives. In some way, almost all of it is being diverted, dissipated, shunted off somewhere else."
"There's no immediate explanation for that, but it isn't a practical problem. We'll simply shut off the drives, pull out the plates and put our own back again. We'll be docking at the station in a week. If we had to use this stuff, it would take us half a dozen years to crawl back to the Hub under our own power."
"In normspace," another man said.
"Yes, in normspace. In pseudo, naturally, it would be a very different matter."
The ship captain scratched his chin, remarked, "In pseudo, if your figures on the output are correct, those plates might have carried us out of the galaxy in a matter of hours."
"Depending on the course we took," the engineering officer agreed.
There was a pause. Then somebody said, "When we were maneuvering to get the siege boat in range, we may have been moving along, or nearly along, one of the scheduled courses. That and our slow speed would have been the signal . . . "
"It seems to explain it," the engineering officer said. He added, "A point I still don't understand is why we didn't lose our atmosphere in the process! We're agreed that the fact we were aboard would have had no meaning for the thingit was a detail it simply wouldn't register. Yet there has been no drop in pressure."
Another man said dryly, "But it isn't quite the same atmosphere! I've found a substantially higher oxygen reading. I think it will be discovered that some of the objects it left on boardI suspect those in the lock room in particularcontain life in one form or another, and that it's oxygen-breathing life."
"That may have been a very fortunate circumstance for us," the captain said. "And . . . " His eyes had shifted along the passage, stopped now on Keth. He paused. "Well," he said mildly, "it seems we have company! It's the gentleman from the newscast system."
The others looked around in surprise.
"Mr. Deboll," the captain went on thoughtfully, "I take it you overheard our discussion just now."
Keth cleared his throat. "Yes," he said. He took off the medical officer's cap.
"You came down here by way of the main lock passage?"
There was silence for a moment. Then the engineering officer said, "As I see it, no harm has been done." He looked rather pleased.
"Quite the contrary, in my opinion!" said the captain. He smiled at Keth. "Mr. Deboll please join our group. In observing you during yesterday's briefing, I was struck by your quickness in grasping the essentials of a situation. No doubt, you already have realized what the explanation for this extraordinary series of events must be."
"Yes, I have," Keth said hoarsely.
"Excellent. Our instructions are that we must not interfere in any way with your report to the public. Now I have a feeling that what you will have to say may be a definite upset to those who have maintained the exploratory Space Three projects should be limited or abandoned because of their expense, and because no information of practical value could possibly be gained from them."
"My guess is you'll get anything you want for them now," Keth told him.
The captain grinned. "Then let's return to the personnel section and get that newscast going!"
They started back to the engine room entrance Keth mentally phrasing the manner in which he would explain to Adacee's waiting billions of viewers that the pseudospace shipone of Man's great achievementshad been halted, engulfed, checked, fueled, loaded up and released by somebody else's automatic depot and service station for intergalactic robot cargo carriers.
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