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EBFIDDLER

SHADOW (07) Part (06)
Friday, September 16, 2011

Spacewalk. Catharsis. The hunt is on.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1853    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

SHADOW (07)

Part (06)

Follows THE TRIAL (06). Precedes ONE MAN’S TRASH (08).

The series so far: A LION’S MOUTH (01) ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02) SPARKS FLY (03) EXPECTATIONS (04) BREAK OUT (05) THE TRIAL (06)

Spacewalk. Catharsis. The hunt is on.

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* * *

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Neumann had heard of it, of course, and had thought he understood what it meant. But in the face of the graphic demonstration he had just witnessed on the bridge, he had to admit to himself that he had had no clue. The Captain hadn’t been avoiding his questions about Shadow out of pure cussedness, after all. He’d just been trying to avoid opening a Pandora’s box of trauma, the scope of which Neumann could only just begin to comprehend. Neumann realized that he’d been approaching the terraforming disaster on Shadow all wrong. It wasn’t just an academic question, a logical sequence of A leads to B yields C. It was a human tragedy of epic proportions. An entire world had been wiped out. An entire way of living. He tried to imagine what it would be like to have his entire home planet, his family, his friends, his childhood, everything he had grown up with, everything he had lived with and regarded as stable and permanent, all taken away in a single disastrous event. He found he couldn’t. Yet it was something the Captain lived with every day. He felt sad beyond sadness, bleak beyond bleak.

Neumann wondered how the Captain had survived the blow. Survived so well as he had. Neumann thought that he himself would be driven crazy, if he had to live with the knowledge of such an event. Now he found himself marveling, not at why the Captain was such a closed-off, ornery, cross-grained 混蛋 húndàn on occasion, but at how the man managed to retain any sense of humor at all. For Captain Reynolds, despite having his dark and brooding moments, did not spend his life in a black funk. He smiled, cracked jokes, told funny stories, and he loved his crew. He had even managed to reminisce fondly about his childhood home. Neumann wondered how he could do it. The Captain was far more resilient than anyone he had heard of, living or historical. He had retained his humanity in the face of stresses that would break a lesser person.

No wonder the crew of Serenity was so loyal. Who wouldn’t fight to protect such a remarkable person? Neumann looked back with disgust at his ham-fisted attempts to get information about Miranda and Shadow. It wasn’t amazing that they’d circled the wagons and left him on the outside. It was amazing that they’d allowed him to stay within sight of the circle. He wondered he hadn’t gotten himself tossed out the airlock on the first voyage.

Time to lend what skills he could to the fight. He was going to find out what killed Shadow—how and why. It was the least he could do for his Captain.

* * *

The time for the spacewalk was fast approaching, and Ip Neumann had made enormous changes to his plans in the last twenty-four hours. He would conduct the gravitational anomaly study as planned, but he wanted to add an entirely new suite of instruments as well. He had some portable equipment with him in the small crate he had been hauling around with him since leaving Blue Sun. He opened the crate and began pulling out the scientific instruments it contained—a spectrograph, particle detector, magnetospheric sensors, laser range finders, as well as instruments that measured and recorded sections of the electromagnetic spectrum from ultraviolet through visible light to infrared. He wanted to be able to measure chemical composition, shifts along fault lines, ground pressure waves, magnetic and radiological anomalies. Simon’s portable diagnostic lab was pressed into service as well, and Kaylee, River, Simon, and Ip worked feverishly in the infirmary prepping and modifying the scientific instruments.

Ip had a focus. Something about the Shadow terraforming accident had always bothered him, and he felt that if he could find the key to that one element, he would crack the case. He didn’t understand how the chance hit to the terraforming station by an Alliance bomb could possibly have set off a chain reaction that could destroy the planet. The terraforming station should have been more robust than that, especially with the inherent redundancies built into system. Shadow had had multiple terraforming stations, with overlapping functions. It should take more than one bomb—more than one bombardment, in fact—to cause any problem at all, let alone a problem on a planet-wide scale. The instrument suite was designed to sweep a broad spectrum of areas for anomalies.

In addition, Ip prepped a small capsule with detectors that would sample the atmosphere, rock, soil (if any), rainfall, and gather seismographic and other data on the ground. If there were signs of any life-forms, even bacteria or blue-green algae, the samplers might find them. He would have liked to rig these instruments with a transmitter to send data back to the ship, but there wasn’t time to get that elaborate, so he included a locator beacon of the type he had commonly used when he worked at Blue Sun, in the event that he had the opportunity to return to Shadow and retrieve the capsule. Kaylee rigged the capsule with an expendable thruster and a heat shield built of scrap, and River programmed the trajectory. He wanted the capsule to land somewhere in the Northside area of the northern continent, because that was the nearest landmass to the terraforming station that had taken the hit.

River didn’t tell him, but she programmed the capsule to land at the coordinates of the Captain’s former house.

* * *

Mal made a last-minute change to the spacewalking team. Although Zoe had intended to go out with Ip and River, at Mal’s request she stayed inside, and Jayne took her place. Mal didn’t say much, but Zoe knew her role was to standby on the bridge. The smashed console on the pilot’s side was a reminder of what might happen, and she understood that she was to disable him if he did anything that might endanger the ship. Inara also claimed a place on the bridge, ready to assist as might be needed, whether it were calling for medical assistance or pinch-hitting as pilot or simply soothing Mal. The bright curve of Shadow filled the entire upper half of the bridge window.

* * *

The spacewalk was incredible. The bright disk of Shadow filled the entire sky above their heads. A quarter of Shadow was in the dark, but the reflected light from the bright portion lit their work area with a yellow glow. River worked seamlessly with Ip. She seemed to know exactly what he needed and exactly when he needed it. It was amazing to have all his needs anticipated. He and River set up the suite of instruments, securing them to the hull of Serenity, and then proceeded with the experimental protocol for the gravitational field anomaly study.

She always enjoyed being out in the Black. The first time, when she and Simon were hiding, Simon had felt sick, but River had felt joy. Later, when she donned a suit to escape Early—even then, with the ship in peril—the joy of the freedom of the Black had touched her. When her plan succeeded and the bounty hunter became another object in space, she had flown—no, floated—back to her home in perfect Serenity. Now, working side by side with Ip, she felt the joy again, the joy of the Black, and the anticipation of results. The light reflected off Shadow was only partly responsible for the glow she felt.

Science doc and River were completely absorbed in placing the blinky boxes around Serenity’s hull like flowerpots. Then they were busy taking measurements, and considering that it was all supposed to be about measuring stuff on Shadow it was funny how they weren’t hardly even lookin’ at the planet. Jayne wasn’t interested in the measurements, so he figured it was his job to look around.

It was an awesome sight.

Jayne didn’t figure he was the kind of fella who awed easily, but he’d never been on a spacewalk this close to a planet before. It felt kinda strange, the great big presence of the thing overhead, taking up what felt like the whole sky, so that space wasn’t black and empty, but full of great big yellow planet. He turned himself over for a better view, and gazed at the thing. Couldn’t see the land forms so well on account of the grayish clouds and yellow haze, but he could see the black patches he reckoned were where the lava flowed out, and bright yellow spots where the sulfur vents must be. He looked from one edge of the planet clear to the other—it was like looking from horizon to horizon, ’cept it was a weird inside out way of doin’ it—and that’s when he saw something that shouldn’t be there.

“What was that?” Jayne asked.

“What was what?” River and Neumann answered together, looking up from their machine.

“I saw a ship,” Jayne said, pointing. “Who else is out here?”

River and Neumann looked in the direction Jayne indicated, toward the horizon of Shadow that Serenity was pursuing.

“There are too many,” River said, and then Jayne spotted them.

Not just one ship. Many ships. Huge numbers of ships. Transports, by the look of ’em.

“No ruttin’ way there should be so many ships out here. Zoe said it was an embargo zone. Say, Doc, you got anything there can scan those ships, see what they’re carrying?”

* * *

Mal stared up at the surface of Shadow, not recognizing a single feature of the landscape. Longitude and latitude said it was the Northside above them, and he couldn’t recognize a thing. It wasn’t just the altered shoreline, or the lack of greenery. Grey patches and black patches covered the land where it was not tawny brown or lurid sulfur yellow. Ash falls and lava plains, he reckoned. Sulfur exudations. There were no words, no words to say or think or feel, no words in any language, no words that could possibly express it—no actions either. At that point he noticed moisture dropping on his hands as they rested on the console before him, and he realized he had been crying for some time. Zoe, bless her, hadn’t said a word, nor given any sign that she noticed. But he knew she had. She understood.

* * *

Inara also understood. She didn’t approach Mal or even signal her presence. This was his private grief. She knew something about loss, far more than Mal suspected she knew. But her loss didn’t compare to the loss of a world. She had expected that Mal might have another flashback, that he would react with violence or anger as he had a few days ago in his bunk. She had thought that he might swear, in Chinese as he typically did when he was greatly moved. But he sat perfectly still. He was shocked to a point well beyond swearing. She noticed that he was silently weeping, cathartic tears streaming down his face unheeded as he stared, unmoving, up at the remains of his home. Her sympathy would be an intrusion. She sat perfectly still. She understood.

* * *

Mal wiped his face and blew his nose. It was then he noticed something that shouldn’t have been there at all. Right at Shadow’s edge, the edge they’d been chasing. Shoals of transports—thick as a shoal of herring, right in the embargo zone, where there shouldn’t have been a single vessel.

* * *

Ip redirected some of his scanners toward the astonishing sight of a fleet of transport vessels. This was a spacewalk of wonders, indeed. The awesome sight of Shadow, stretched across the sky overhead, and the strange evidence of human activity within the embargo zone. As he looked through the viewfinder at the transport fleet, he saw a single vessel peel off from the swarm and fly solo—no he didn’t. Must have imagined it, because he couldn’t spot it now.

* * *

“Two by two, Hands of Blue,” River said with a note of panic in her voice. “They took all the blue away and left only the yellow.”

Jayne looked sharply at her. She still had a smile on her face, but it was the kind of smile that got stuck there when you forgot you were smiling and had other things on your mind. He recognized that “two by two” right enough. Girl was about to go crazy-time.

“Doc,” Jayne said, “River needs to get back indoors. I’ma gonna take her in.”

Neumann looked over at Jayne just as the Captain’s voice sounded in their comms. “Everybody inside. We’ve got way too much company here.”

Ip began to object. “A few more minutes, Captain, please.”

Jayne shot a look at Neumann and prepared to remove him by force, if necessary. It weren’t necessary. Instantly Mal was back on the comm. “No. Come inside. 马上 Mǎshàng.” Neumann immediately obeyed. Again, Jayne was amazed at how Mal could do that. They couldn’t even see the Look, but they both felt its power.

* * *

Mal couldn’t explain it, but he had an uneasy feeling that had nothing to do with his proximity to Shadow and the ruins of his youth. Or rather, it did, but not in the same way. After this journey, he reckoned he was becoming a bit of an expert in uneasy feelings, and the nuances of this one were different. He felt like he was being hunted.

Before the spacewalkers were completely inside, Mal had done a wake scan, and the readings, while detecting nothing obvious, reminded him of the disturbances he had seen when Serenity was pursued by the stealth ship off the Lion’s Mouth. He began to fly evasive maneuvers, cautiously, because sudden actions were just not feasible with the cargo of cattle. As soon as the spacewalking team was inside and divested of their suits, he called River to the bridge.

Her mode of arrival was all he needed to confirm the situation. “Giant came down and stole all the blue,” she cried, as Jayne carried her to the bridge in his arms. “Little insect woke the sleeping Giant. Two by two, Hands of Blue…”

“I know they’re there, Albatross,” Mal said, turning in the co-pilot chair to look directly into her eyes. “You reckon you’re able to fly our girl here?”

River was still whimpering, but she nodded. Mal stood and gestured for Jayne to set her down in the co-pilot chair. He stood directly behind the chair and placed his hands on her shoulders. He leaned down and spoke gently. “I’m counting on you to fly her gentle and smart.”

River found the Captain’s strength steadying. She needed the steady touch. Chaos lurked at the edges of her mind and threatened to overwhelm. Two by two…and the barbarians were at the gate! Tearing of teeth and claws! Savagery…she pulled back from the chaotic images, the incoherent screams, focus, focus

“Focus, River,” Mal said. “Focus on flying. Keep your mind with the ship.”

“The invisible ship,” River echoed. “Wonder woman.”

Mal had no idea what she meant, but reckoned wonder woman would do better than mumblings about barbarians at the gate, so he gave her a reassuring pat and said, “Show us what wonder woman can do.”

Zoe still sat the pilot’s chair, in front of the wrecked console. A few pieces of equipment there were still working, among them the proximity scanner. “Sir, we got a bigger problem.”

Mal glanced over. Zoe had put an image up on the wall monitor. It was a view of Serenity’s wake. And there it was, menacing, approaching with speed, and streaming a trail of waste.

A Reaver ship.

你他媽的天下所有的人都該死 Nǐ tāmādē tiānxià suǒyǒu de rén dōu gāisǐ!”

哎呀, 我们 完了Āiyā wǒmen wán le!” Zoe added.

“Kaylee!” Mal called into the comm.

“Yes, Cap’n.”

“Set us up for a hard burn. Anything you can do to get us an extra burst of speed—”

“I can set up the fusion injectors, Cap’n, it’ll give us a boost, but it’s like to burn out the Codippily relay—”

“Anything you can do, Kaylee,” Mal interrupted. “We don’t get a burst of speed soon, we’re likely never to need the engine again.” He heard Kaylee gasp as she fully grasped the seriousness of the situation. “Doc with you?”

是啊 Shì a.”

“Get him to help,” Mal said, well aware of the kind of “help” Simon typically provided the mechanic, and making it clear with his voice that he needed the other kind. “Sooner would be better.”

“Inara.” Mal turned to her, the first sign he had given that he was even aware of her presence on the bridge. Inara suddenly knew that he had been aware of her all along, and saw that he was trying to tell her something more than what his words were saying. “Inara, the Reavers are on us, as well as a stealth ship.” He looked deep into her eyes. “Please—prep the shuttle, take the civilians. If we’re boarded by Reavers, make a run for it. Hera is near enough. There’s a chance you could get away.” His eyes expressed a thousand things there wasn’t time to say.

“Who are the civilians, Mal?” Inara asked. It was a genuine question.

“Neumann and…” Mal stopped. Everyone else was crew. “Please, Inara…I want—” he put his hands on her shoulders as they stood facing each other. “You’d have a chance. I’d want you to have a chance, if I—. I…love you.” He kissed her, deeply, passionately, briefly. “Please. Go.”

“Jayne.” The Captain had shifted modes instantly, and Jayne unfolded himself from where he’d been lurking in the corner of the bridge. “Weapons.” Mal turned his attention back to River and the pilotage as Jayne sped off to collect and distribute weapons.

* * *

Inara and Neumann sat in her shuttle. Or rather, he sat uneasily, while she jumped up, sat down again in the pilot’s seat, checked the settings, jumped up and paced anxiously, and directed tense glances at the screen showing the menacing progress of the Reaver ship. Neumann was babbling nervously about the instruments left out on the hull of Serenity, but she wasn’t listening. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. He wasn’t supposed to die. He’s not supposed to die before me!

* * *

“They still behind us?” Jayne asked, as he handed Mal a semi-automatic and a spare clip, along with a couple of grenades, which Mal hooked onto the gun belt he was already wearing.

“Right behind us,” Mal confirmed.

“They say, a stern chase is a long chase.” Jayne had heard that said, somewhere. The thought was comforting, and he clung to it.

“Unless they’re going faster than us.”

“Right, ’less they’re goin’ faster.”

“Which they are, Jayne,” Mal returned, dashing his hopes. “This won’t be a long chase.”

All eyes were focused on the view of the Reaver ship on the wall monitor. Reaver ships always had an element to them that baffled the rational mind, not that the rational mind spent much time considering that element when the Reavers were within view. It was too busy being terrified. And that, of course, was the point. Why the torn hulls? Why the odd parts welded on asymmetrically? Why the red paint? It was all designed to terrorize, to scare the quarry into a fatal error. Why fly with no reactor containment? Anyone crazy enough to fly that way was crazy enough to try anything. The Reavers weren’t the first attackers to recognize the value of terrorizing their prey. Terror was their first-line weapon.

It certainly worked on Jayne. “C’mon, River, you dumbass, dodge ’em.”

“闭嘴 Bìzuǐ [Shut up],” Mal returned. “Can’t do those maneuvers with cattle aboard.”

“Steady—steady—steady—” River chanted softly, like a mantra.

“Then I hope Reavers like beefsteak.” Jayne’s mouth was running. It was how he covered his rising terror at the thought of bein’ et alive. “That’s our only chance.”

“We’re not flyin’ like crazy people,” Mal stated firmly. “That’s the Reavers’ line.”

“They’re gaining,” Zoe called.

Mal checked the monitor again. The Reaver ship was larger, but—parts were missing? Parts were missing from the middle of the ship. It took him a moment to figure out what he was seeing—or rather, notseeing.

“We can’t see, but we can,” River said, and it made perfect sense to Mal. “We can see what isn’t there.” All the while she flew, not steady, but with a continuous series of small, minor adjustments.

Zoe looked puzzled and Jayne looked flummoxed. Jayne opened his mouth to say something about River going crazy again, but Mal shut him up with a look.

“Wonder woman’s invisible airplane,” River said, and Mal nodded. “It’s our invisible shield.” She was tracking Serenity’s movements on the movements of the stealth ship, whose invisible shielding ironically made its outline against the backdrop of the Reaver ship perfectly clear. She kept the form of the stealth ship always between Serenity and the greater threat of the Reavers. The stealth ship, in its turn, was having trouble predicting the Reaver ship’s course, clearly not having much experience at being stalked by an insane predator. It was hard to say if the Reavers knew the stealth ship was there, but it was likely interfering with the ability of their grapples to get a lock on Serenity, and Mal had to count that as a plus. Still, there wasn’t much time.

“Who’s wonder woman?” Jayne asked. “What the hell good’s an invisible shield gonna do?”

“Kaylee,” Mal called urgently into the comm. “Got that boost comin’?”

“Nearly there, Cap’n.” Kaylee sounded out of breath. She was working as fast as she could.

“Reavers can’t see the stealth ship,” Zoe called out. “They’re still gaining.” There was a note of panic in her voice as the Reaver ship put on a burst of speed. “They’re gonna ram—”

“Kaylee Kaylee Kaylee Kaylee,” Mal yelled.

They all winced as they viewed the impact on the monitor. There was of course no sound of a crash as the Reaver ship collided full tilt with the invisible stealth ship—the now visible stealth ship. Serenity was not struck. The impact had jolted the stealth ship’s shielding system out of alignment, and after blinking in and out of blackness a few times, the shielding failed and the ship remained visible.

“Ready,” Kaylee gasped into the comm.

“Do it.” Serenity shot off with a burst of speed, and the Reavers made no move to follow, choosing instead to chase the prey that had dropped out of the sky onto the nose of their ship.

* * *

Mal went to the shuttle to tell Inara—and Neumann, of course—that the danger was past. He entered without knocking, and smiled with relief at Inara. A second later they were enveloped in each other’s arms, kissing with the passion born of being given a second chance at life. He hadn’t even registered Neumann’s presence until the young man’s uncomfortable noises rose to a level that penetrated even in the midst of their passion. They broke apart.

The Captain grinned at Neumann. “We’re out of the woods, Dr Ip.”

“Great. I’m…great,” Ip repeated. “I’ll just, uh, see to the scientific instruments, then.” He squeezed past the couple and dashed out the shuttle door.

“That’s…good then,” Mal replied, already gravitating back into Inara’s arms. She had the presence of mind to shut the shuttle door. “Seems to me we had some unfinished business,” he said huskily, and they hastened to resume where they had left off.

* * *

*

*

*

fin

glossary

混蛋 húndàn [bastard]

马上 mǎshàng [Now]

你他媽的天下所有的人都該死 Nǐ tāmādē tiānxià suǒyǒu de rén dōu gāisǐ [F**k the whole damn ’Verse (translated in the show as F**k everyone in the universe to death)]

哎呀, 我们 完了Āiyā wǒmen wán le [We are in really big trouble (lit. Damn, we’re finished/done for)]

是啊 Shì a[Affirmative]

闭嘴 Bìzuǐ [Shut up]

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COMMENTS

Friday, September 16, 2011 4:35 AM

NUTLUCK


Very cool, though I think Serenity needs to dump their cows off at the drop. So River can fly all crazy like again. Good chapter.

Friday, September 16, 2011 10:51 AM

BYTEMITE


"Time to lend what skills he could to the fight. He was going to find out what killed Shadow—how and why. It was the least he could do for his Captain."

*face palm* and he was doing so well. Then he goes right back to his original plan.

"“No ruttin’ way there should be so many ships out here. Zoe said it was an embargo zone. Say, Doc, you got anything there can scan those ships, see what they’re carrying?”"

Thought so.

"A Reaver ship."

Reavers, terraforming failure, Shadow, Miranda.

Uh oh.

Friday, September 16, 2011 1:08 PM

AMDOBELL


Yay, loved this and FINALLY some good fortune comes our Heroes' way. I cheered when the Reaver ship rammed into the sneaky Hands of Blue stealth ship and changed their menu plans. Couldn't happen to more fitting folk and it means Serenity gets to escape that particular noose. I'm curious about those other ships, were they Reavers too or more Blue Sun? Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Saturday, September 17, 2011 4:06 AM

M52NICKERSON


Cows, Reavers and Hands of Blue, oh my.

Saturday, September 17, 2011 6:16 AM

PLATONIST


Exciting chapter, even with Mal tearfully staring at Shadow, he's able to notice something amiss.

The last scene was kinda hot, and all they did was kiss…curse FOX a thousand times for not letting the show continue!

Saturday, September 17, 2011 8:09 AM

ZOESMOM


Stealth ship vs Reavers...I wonder how that turned out?

Saturday, September 17, 2011 9:34 AM

EBFIDDLER


Nutluck and m52, we’ll see what they do with the cows in the next story. Sorry, nutluck, I couldn’t let River go crazy at the helm like in A Lion’s Mouth, or I’d get in trouble with the animal protection people for mistreating the cows ;-) NB—Don’t worry, only _imaginary_ cows were used in the writing of this story.

Bytemite: “*face palm* and he was doing so well. Then he goes right back to his original plan.” Don’t worry Bytemite, Ip’s evolving. Apparently not fast enough for your taste ;-) Yeah, he’s back to the original plan, sort of, only this time *with feeling*.

“Reavers, terraforming failure, Shadow, Miranda. Uh oh.” You said it! Welcome to the story arc. You’ll see this one develop over time.

Ali D: Poetic justice, isn’t it? I’m glad you’re curious about those ships around Shadow. We’ll find out more about them, soon.

Zoesmom: “Stealth ship vs Reavers...I wonder how that turned out?” We may never find out…Reavers leave no survivors, isn’t that so? On the other hand…

Platonist: Oh, thank you for noticing Mal in this chapter! Because, seriously, people, I think it’s the most significant event in the story. Yoo hoo! Here’s Mal, quietly _Expressing His Grief_ over the loss of his home. Grief that he has kept bottled up for _Eight Years_. (There are very few things that could make Mal cry, in my opinion: Serenity Valley, Shadow, and the loss of Inara.) And Inara noticed. And Mal noticed that she noticed.

One of the things that makes Mal a good leader is his ability to function in a crisis. So even as he grieves for Shadow, he’s able to notice the potential threat of the ships and respond appropriately.

And thanks for the compliment about the last scene. :-)

Saturday, September 17, 2011 2:18 PM

BYTEMITE


Oh, no worries, I saw Mal too, liked him quietly coping with the pain of it, seeing what Shadow has become, and also the later confession which is Very Important too.

But I can't talk about Mal all the time, I have to spread the attention around to all the characters.

Saturday, September 17, 2011 7:08 PM

NUTLUCK


You know reavers at Shadow suggests all kinds of things like maybe not everyone from Shadow was killed and perhaps Miranda was not the first test of the pax and the first time when it got out of hand they blew all the terraforming stations at once to cover it up. If so mal won't be a happy camper. Just saying.

Sunday, September 18, 2011 3:39 AM

ZOESMOM


I was running through the scenarios of Reavers vs Blue Hands, and I was thinking that with those killer magic wands that the Blue Hands have, victory does not necessarily go to the Reavers.


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