Here comes Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th. She is eight, and this is the manner of her coming.
First, you see the sand. It is red and of a particular grain type produced only by wind action. It smells electric; there is much iron in it. It draws lightning out of the occasional clouds; once or twice in a long year, rain. Where the lightning strikes, veins of slag iron strike deep into the sand. This is rust-sand, strewn profligately about this contourless landscape. Red sand, rust-sand, red dust, a desert of iron studded with ugly stones. The wind never ceases out here on the plains of the high high north. It has teased the sand into steep-sided ridges, long meandering sifs, crescent moon barchans. This is a sinuous, sensual landscape, curves and seductions from the slip-sliding dune-faces to the curve of the close horizon.
A solitary hard erection confronts the soft southern desert of iron. Five metres high, a slim steel shaft, scabbed by the excoriating winds, scarred by summer lightning. It is a natural victim for summer lightning. On top of the shaft, three lights, red topmost, amber in the middle, on the bottom, green. Signal lights. In the middle of a rust-desert.
Now you see the rail. Two perfectly parallel lines of Bethlehem Ares steel, rolled in the mills of New Merionedd, married together by pour-stone sleepers, tied down by figure-of-eight tie-bolts: pinned, plated and bolted. Straight and absolute as a geometrical proposition. Get down. Hunker down -- not too low, under this sun your cheek will stick to the hot rail and rip. Just enough to sight along them, gun-barrels aimed at the place where horizon and heat-dazzle meet and melt. Straight and absolute. You can go over the edge of the world and they'll run straight and absolute for seven hundred kilometres. In the cabs of the big transcontinentals there are red buttons that the engineers must touch every twenty seconds or the brakes will automatically apply. It's easy to fall asleep over the speed levers out here. It's a hypnotic land. It draws your soul out through your staring eyes along the twin steel rails, to whatever dwells in the silver shimmer at the edge of the world. Occasional track-side tangles of sand-polished metal prove the dangers that lie in the long straight track.
But we drive ahead of ourselves here. We must stay a while at the signal light, and ask questions. Why signal what? What is there in this dust and rust of any significance? Two things. The first is the passing loop. This patch of desert is the only place within two hundred kilometres where trains may pass and gain access to the single mainline. Here crews exchange ancient brass tokens, part key, part shield, to unlock the line. Conversations too, news and gossip, sometimes family members, or body fluids, if they are the big slow ore-haulers whose timetables allow a little society. The second thing is that, if you look up the line, you will see it part company with itself. This is Borealis Junction: one line drives forcefully on into the snow country of the north pole, where the cold can glue an Engineer's hand to the throttles as this heat will seal flesh to steel. Up and over the top of the world, and down into the old lands of Deuteronomy and Dioscu: green places replete with grazers and herd-beasts, where every village roof-tree is high and holy with prayer kites. The other line drifts to port until it curves out of sight among the thunderous chasms of Fosse mountains, spanned by treacherous trestle bridges and pour-stone viaducts, that disgorge nerve-wracked Engineers out on to the bleak mesa-lands of Isidy. For half a quartersphere the lines are drawn together by mutual magnetism until they meet once again at Schiaparelli Junction to run westward along the vast synclinorium of Great Oxus and the thousand towns of Grand Valley, where the World-roof sparkles on the horizon like a reef of morning-lit cloud.
So this signal light is more than an arbitrary stop-go in the wilderness. It is the prefect of line safety, it is guardian of the line tokens, it is the gateway to new landscapes. And, no less than any of these, it is Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th's Grandfather.
It is time she made her entrance.
You become aware that the rail burning the sole of your desert boot is trembling. Bend down -- don't touch! Yes. Rail humming. Train coming. You squint under the shade of your hand down the long straight line. What is real and what is potential is still undecided in that haze. But the rails are singing now: a deep, tight harmonious keening. A sharp dry clack. You have to look around at the nothingness several times before you can see the small but significant change. The points have switched on to the passing loop.
Peer again: shapes moving in the haze, flowing so you cannot be certain it is one thing or many. Silver in silver. Then the shadows flow, silver out of silver: a winged woman, wing-arms folded back, breasts out-thrust, hair streaming in the wind. In your amazement you almost do not notice that the track is roaring. Red dust bounces up from between the sleepers. Now you realise your mistake. This is no angel. Its shadow flows out behind it into a shield of darkness: you are looking at the boiler-cap and figurehead of a great train. A very great train indeed: the faceless land has been playing tricks with your perspective. You had thought the winged woman pixie sized, maybe a medium-grade Amshastria, but close and manageable. No. This silver angel-woman is enormous, the curved prow of the boiler gargantuan. The train is kilometres away. But it is very very big. Air-ship big. City-block big. Ocean-liner big, if this world had oceans fit for liners. The buffer plates, held out like a prize-fighter's weaving fists, are three metres across. The cow-catcher, baroquely ornamented with figures from the Ekaterina Angelography, could sweep entire phyla from its path. The eight bogies are each the height of a decent house: the spokes of the drive wheels are the crucified arms of windmills. The drive shafts, the thickness of a thick man's body, pump with the regular, tireless ease of a Belladonna sweat-house laddie. The headlamp is a monstrous cyclops eye, furious with heat, all revealing. It is hooded now, but with the magic hour, it sends its sheer white shaft kilometres ahead of it, a vanguard of the divine. The steam that blasts from the sharply raked stack is so hot that it travels a third the length of the fusion boiler before it condenses into visibility. This train leaves a pure white contrail downtrack for ten kilometres.
Another glance at that smoke stack. Down at the base, where it flares into the main caisson, is that a hand-rail? Are those staircases, is that a balcony? Those gleams of highlight, could they be windows? There, just above the halo of the Bethlehem Ares Railroads angel, is that an arc of glass, like the bridge of a ship? And balancing precariously to the swept-back piston housings, spilling steps and ladders over the buffer cylinders, what else can those be but low buildings? A swathe of bungalows clings to the skirts of Bethlehem Ares Railroads Class 22 Heavy Fusion Hauler Catherine of Tharsis. And there, on that perilous railed-in viewpoint underneath the smoke-stack, is that a figure?
Nearer now. Yes, a sun-brown lank of a female dressed in the uniform orange track vest of her clan over a flirty floral-print frock. A tousle of black curls tosses around her face, combed back from great cheekbones by the speed of passage.
And now you notice how close the train is to you. Too much time spent staring at the girl on the high balcony. It's on top of you. You should --you must-- run. But you cannot. The whole world is quaking to the pound of the engines, and you are transfixed in its track like a hopper in headlights. A steel avalanche rears over you. Crushing death pants in your face. The black and silver angel looms over you like judgement, and turns away. Catherine of Tharsis swings on to the passing loop, tucking her three kilometre tail neatly behind her. Brakes shriek, steel and grit bite and grind. It takes a lot of space for the big transpolars to stop. This is by no means the largest. There are triple-headers hauling ten kilometres out of Iron Mountain. The magic thousand trucks. Those mothers are visible from orbit, like steel rivers.
The caboose clears the points. It's a frantic congeries of railroad utility and Cathrinist whimsy. No Step Here, with hand-painted round-eyed icons of the Seven Sanctas. Grist boxes and prayer flags, now windless and limp. The Bassareeni are a gaudy people. Socially below the salt, but the Engineers have always got on well with them, outside the Forma. There was a mingling of genes some generations back. The Stuards have never forgiven, never forgotten, but the Stuards are a notoriously anal Domiety.
A trickle, a creep. A hiss of steam. Thirty three thousand tons of Bethlehem Ares steel balances on two ten centimetre ribbons of metal under the hot, high sun.
Clunk. The points have switched over again, back to the mainline. The signal light has gone from caution to green. New train coming. But that is not part of your story. Your story is ended here. Your part as observer of these events is complete. Your eyes have shown us what only the desert things and God the Panarchic see, at this forsaken junction in the high poplar desert. You are dissolved back into a greater story that begins here, the story of Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th.
Naon Sextus Solstice-Rising Engineer 11th always experienced a little death when he took his hands off the drive lever. Post coital. He coyly shrugged the thought away -- exaggeration -- but that first time when his own father Bedzo 10th had taken his hand and laid it on the drive bar, when he lifted it off again, had there not been a tiny damp spot on the fly of his pants?
Twenty years rodding and railing had made him acute to every whisper and vibration of his machine. The fusion fires ebbing in the magnetic pinch-torus was a languid decay, a sorrowful limpening. Flaccid. He was never truly himself while the fusion engines slumbered. He grew distracted and irritable. All his family had learned this decades ago and were wise.
He called up a track report from North West Regional Track at Suvebray. The mottled quartersphere resolved in projector focus, the mainlines a web of throbbing vessels like the arteries of a womb. The fast Northern Lights express was still twenty minutes down despite its Engineers rattling every valve up into the ochre on the long Axidy incline. Derailment at Perdition Junction, down to a single track. Damn locals, jammed with commuters and roof-riding goondahs, stopping at every hole in the hedge. Woolamagong! Serendip! Acacia Heights! Atomic Avenue! Naon Sextus was not a man who bore delays with grace. Every lost second felt pared from the exposed end of his life, like hard salt cheese. As a child he had read and memorised timetables. For fun. He snatched the monocular from its peg, peered impatiently down the branchline but even the vantage of the bridge of Catherine of Tharsis could not penetrate the haze.
Casting around for an object on which to flog his annoyance, he noticed through the grille of the catwalk overhead a pair of yellow desert-boot soles. He turned his lenses on them.
'Mother of plenty, has that child no shame?'
A woman's voice answered from behind him: Child'a'grace, Mrs Asiim Engineer 11th, floury to the elbows folding samosas in the domestic galley.
Firmness was as much part of Naon Sextus' character as good timekeeping. Many a time the unexpected voice of his wife had almost tricked him into speaking but he had never lapsed, not once, in four years. He tightened his lips, gave the nasty cough that was the sign for his wife to look at him. Naon Sextus turned from the control board, enough to glimpse Child'a'grace, but not so much that she might think he was looking at her.
No underwear! his fingers said, shaking with indignation.
'It's a fine day,' Child'a'grace commented, deftly sealing a pastry triangle and flipping it into hot fat.
The shame! Naon Engineer signed.
'Who's to see?'
Every staring soul on the thirteen twenty seven Northern Lights Express! For something was emerging from the liquid light dazzle. Due in three and a half minutes! As a coda, his thumbs added what will they think?
'They will think,' said Child'a'grace breezily, fishing her samosa from the fry-bath with a chicken-wire scoop, 'that there is a fine young woman of nearly-nine with the body of an avata and the impatience of a rat whom you and I both know, husband, should long since have been married.' She drained the golden oil back into the pan. 'And if by some chance, the passing winds should blow that skirt up -- which they might, for if I remember, it is quite short and floaty -- they see that she wears not underpants, then the more fortune to them and I hope their sleeps are tormented by wants for many a night.'
Before leaving her family at an unnamed water stop under the volcanoes, Child'a'Grace had been Susquavanna, a catering people who for two long centuries had hawked hot savouries up and down the platforms of the North West Quartersphere. Pastry was in their genes, like steam in the blood of the Engineers, but she resolutely refused to observe the proprieties of caste, namely the eternal distinction between track and platform. This was deeply grievous to Naon Sextus, a son of his father and his line before him. Truly, the dowry had cleared up the matter of the remortgage, but he frequently wished that Grandmother Taal had matched with someone a little less platform. But after eleven years, the food was still exciting. The sex can go, the conversation will go, the respect may be trodden into a familiar track of predictability, but by the Mother of Mercies, cooking endures!
But the girl had no underwear, and one under-dignified marriage was enough. Women with no knickers ended married to Bassareenis and dropping their sprogs in the caboose. His fingers prepared to riposte this to Child'a'Grace but the shapes were blown away by the sudden slam of the express train's passing.
There was a moment that Sweetness Asiim Engineer treasured above all other distinct moments. She had travelled long enough around the globe to admit it as almost sexual, but it was entirely her own. It began with a brief flutter, an intake of breath, a stirring of hair and clothes: the pressure shift. At this point you obtained best effect by closing the eyes and listening to the swelling thunder of wheels. Hold the dread: fight the instinct to look at the source of that unholy noise. Then, the second pressure point: there. Sweetness opened her eyes. The fast train reared like a cliff before her. The world was nothing but steel and steam and blasting, shattering sound. Sweetness unleashed the deep, dark fear: you're on the wrong track, the points have failed, sixty thousand tons of train are about to meet head on at three hundred and fifty kilometres per hour, and you're right between them!
It would be quick, and glorious
The mountain aimed itself at her heart, and at the last instant, turned away.
The pressure wave punched her hard, blinded her with steam and dust. Then the slip-stream yanked at her you, come. Sweetness needed no invitation. She leaped after the blur of chrome and black. Along clattering catwalks. Down iron staircases. Across vertiginous gantries, over platforms, hurdling the sprawling legs of brother Sleevel, lolling idle with his best mate Rother'am watching the afternoon pelota on a handheld.
'What? Uh. Just my sister.'
Sweetness raced the faces behind the tinted window glass but the faces were always going to win. The wind that dragged her was failing. It dropped her in a little iron-framed oriole high on the side of the starboard tender coupling. She leaned out over the brass railing, raised her hand in salute to the glass observation, the rattle in the express's tail. On the open rear balcony was a fine city lady in a sheer lace dress. Wake turbulence tugged her parasol from her fingers. It soared up and away, a bamboo and waxed paper flying saucer. The city lady looked up, vexed, and in the moment her eyes met those of the black-haired girl in the orange track vest in the wrought-iron carbuncle on the flank of the big hauler.
Lady and train were a thin black snake winding across the red desert. Carried high on the winds, the parasol floated into invisibility. The haze swallowed all. Gone again.
'You're a fool to yourself,' the voice said after a decent interlude. The thunder of wheels had masked his approach, but Sweetness had deduced Romereaux's presence from his smell. All the Deep-Fusion people had a distinctive musk, like electricity and cool evenings after hot days, or concrete after rain. Sweetness imagined it was what atoms smelled like.
He was leaning against the turret door in the easy-pleasy way men can when it's not important for them to be looked at. Romereaux's people shared hair colour and quality with the Engineers -- and body fluids, certain generations ago -- but he was slight and pale, with a narrow shadow of attempted goatee. The sun did not get to the Deep-Effs in the heart of the big train.
'Two hundred years of Engineer tradition says I know what I'm talking about.'
He was a year and a half Sweetness's senior and, bad genes or not, next corroboree he would marry a Traction daughter off the Class 88 Four Ways. She would miss him.
'There's a first time for everything.'
He saw the way she looked down the long straight track and wanted to lie, to promise unpromisable things, but he had never been able to lie to Sweetness in all their years growing up together on Catherine of Tharsis.
'Sle will be Engineer 13th. You know that.'
She did, she knew it like she knew the sun would rise tomorrow, but she still growled, 'All Sle's interested in is pelota and grab ass. And he's not even any good at them.'
Romereaux smiled palely. She went on.
'There are other branches of the Domiety have woman drivers. The Slipher Engineers. The Great Western folk. Down in New Merionedd every other engineer is a woman. And couldn't you just pretend, eh? Couldn't you just for once tell me, yeah, sure, Sweetness, you'll drive, you'll be up there with your hand on the drive lever? Would that be so hard, for once?'
He said, 'Have you been to see your uncle yet?'
'Mother'a... I near forgot. How long've we got?'
'About five minutes.'
'I'll go now, then. You coming?'
'If you don't mind.'
Train-people, Sweetness thought as she waited for Ricardo Traction to crank down the access ladder. We can go any place we like in the whole wide world but only as long as we stay on the rails.
'Regards to your uncle!' Tante Miriamme Traction called from the tiny window of her laundry room as Sweetness hopped down on to the red sand. Stay on the rails. Bad luck will come in the night and climb up through your nose and through your ears if you wander off the safe track. Superstitions, litanies, observations. Casual coincidences that have become baked over years into causes and effects. Believed truths. Like daughters don't drive. But she still glanced over her shoulder when she could no longer feel the psychic closeness of Catherine of Tharsis on the back of her neck. The big train stood like a black monolith fused out of rust sand.
Romereaux paid his respects first. A quick press of the palm to the sand-scoured shaft of the signal light. Everyone -- crew, that was, passengers never counted -- on Catherine of Tharsis was related in some wise, even the boisterous Bassareenis, but Romereaux's connection with Uncle Neon was tenuous and he had never really believed that a soul could exist in a railroad signal. That might have been why he had never felt anything but Bethlehem Ares galvanised steel, Sweetness thought. He bowed and stood back.
Sweetness clapped her hands twice. The sound was small and flat in the huge and flat desert. She uncapped the flask she had collected from Madre Marya Stuard and poured a libation of cold tea. It frothed and stained the red sand like urine. Sweetness closed her eyes and boldly pressed her hand against the shaft. As ever, it began with sound-shadow, steel-slither, the hum-thrum of wind and wheels on rails, a memory of a life in rapid motion, twin ribbons of metal singing like the tines of a tuning fork. Her hearing opened like wings, was down at the bottom she was listening to the strum of the silicon and the songs the stones sing, up through the wind-tumbled grains, building into harmonies of sand, a slow sea breaking grain by grain. Outwards still, until she could hear everything contained within the girdling horizon. The rhythms and pulses of her own body joined with the chord of sand song. For a divine moment the great northern desert was a single quantum wave function, modelled in sand like a Shandastria scrying-garden. Sweetness stood at the locus of maximum probability.
She opened her eyes. As ever, she was somewhere else. In this place there were no rails and no train and where the desert met the far mountains the red bled up into the sky. Blood red sky, a pink zenith. No clouds in that sky, neither hope nor memory of rain. The rocks around her feet were salted with frost. The sand on which she stood seethed with static electricity. In all the world there were only two things, her and the upright of the signal light, rooted obstinately in the alien earth.
Sweetness had always understood three things about this place. First, that neither of them should really be here at all. Second, that it should be as instantly lethal to her as if the soil were acid. Third, that this was their private place, her uncle and her, And that she could never tell anyone about it. Not even her family. It had been bad enough with Little Pretty One. They had talked Flying Therapist. This...
When he spoke, he sounded less like the practical, piratical man she remembered, and more like she imagined God the Panarchic. In a voice that seemed to come from a great distance, he asked, 'What year is it?'
'Same as last time.'
'When was last time?'
'Duoseptember. The autumn equinox. The Cadmium Valley contract?'
'Oh, yes.' Like a sand storm subsiding. 'What year is that, exactly?' She told him. He said, 'I lose the track, here.'
As she knew that these conversations with her uncle took place outside normal space, Sweetness also understood that they occupied a special time neither past nor present nor future, but other, real-time inverted. Dream time.
'So,' Uncle Neon said. 'Sle...'
'Still thinks he's going to be a big pelota star. 'Cept he's got two right feet and a fat gut and his head is fried from too much television and wanking.'
'He hasn't married that Cussite girl with the fifteen gold ear-rings, yet.'
'Met her yet. Not that, either,'
'Ah. I see.' He did too, much and wide, but unfocused, like a distorting lens. Sweetness frequently tripped over Uncle Neon's nostalgias for futures that might never happen. And sometimes the branching future he picked in this mother of marshalling yards was the mainline ahead.
'They want you wed,' he said.
'To a Stuard. A Ninth Avata Stuard, on the Llangonedd run.'
'Don't worry yourself.'
'Don't worry myself? You've just told me I'm going to blow my wild years brewing samovars of mint tea for Cathar pilgrims.'
Uncle Neon had an appropriately scary laugh. It felt like sand scouring the inside of your skull. Sweetness winced.
'Sweetness, your wild years are far from blown,' he said, and sang an old nursery rhyme about a sailor who sailed across the sky and brought back his love a silver fig and a diamond rattle. He did not sing well, even in death, but Sweetness was patient with relatives. When he had finished she left a polite pause before asking, 'Is that it?'
'I'm going to marry a Stuard and my wild years are far from over?'
In the pause that followed Sweetness imagined the three-bulbed signal light cocked to one side, quizzically.
'Yes. That's it. Don't worry, though. Trust me. Now, tell me, how is she?'
By 'she', Sweetness understood Catherine of Tharsis and that she would see no more of her future. She huffed through her nose in exasperation at the unruly oracle.
'The aft containment field still isn't seating right.'
'Is it making a sound like this?' This being a twittering, hissing whistle.
'More like this.' Sweetness added a tweeting click, on a rising cadence.
Uncle Neon clicked his tongue.
'You want to get that seen to. What are those Deep-Fusion folk about? I don't know, since I died, she's gone to pieces. No one has any respect for good machinery any more. He certainly doesn't. His head's completely up his arse, and I don't just mean trains. Look at that poor sow he married -- your sainted mother, I mean.' Uncle Neon's telepathic apology felt like two crossed fingers circling Sweetness's frontal lobe in blessing. She loved the feeling. It made her purr. 'He's still not talking to her.'
'Not a whisper. He signs.'
Another neural tut.
'It should be you. I've always said that. You'd get that field generator set right toute suite.'
'I wouldn't have let it get into that state on the first place,' Sweetness said proudly. Too many dead-end tracks toppling into glossy green craters were the monuments to sloppy tokamak maintenance. The Tracksters laid fresh rail around them but the blast craters stayed hot for lifetimes, glowing sickly in the high plains night. Thinking of them Sweetness flared,
'But I'm going to marry a poncing Stuard on the God-shuttle and make tea and almond slices, amn't I?'
'You said you saw it.'
'I see a lot more than I say. That I can say.'
Says who? Sweetness wanted to say but the words were sucked off her lips by the sudden dust wind whipping up around her, a dust she knew was not dust, or rust, but moments. Granulated time. She was being drawn back. The journey home was always quicker and more precipitous than the way out: a swooping giddiness, a rustling blackness, a sense of wings wide enough to wrap the world, and then there; the big big desert and the hot hot sun.
Romereaux was squatting on his heels by the rail, scoping palmfuls of dust and trickling them through his fingers. Idling time away.
'How do you do that?' he said.
'Do what?' The other place took a moment to blink away, like grit in the eye.
'Whatever it is you do. Wherever it is you go.'
'Go?' Suspicious: what had he seen? 'I don't go anywhere. I mean, you're there, but you're not there.'
'But where are you?'
'What's this about?'
Romereaux shrugged, opened his hand, looked at the earth and small stones clutched there.
'I'm just interested in what you do, where you go.'
'Well don't be.'
'You're very defensive.'
'I've got to have something for myself.' On a train where five families live on top of each other in a tapestry of territories and societies. 'Some place for me.'
'So you do go somewhere.'
'What's this to you?'
'Nothing. They've whistled.'
That brought her up.
'What? How many times?'
Three whistles, and the train left. With or without you. Fare or family. We've got a railroad to run, don't you know? Timetables to keep. As Sweetness sprinted for Catherine of Tharsis steam plumed up from the calliope mounted where the main boiler joined the tender. The impudent notes of Liberty Lillian's Rag swaggered across the desert as Madre Mercedes Deep-Fusion's asbestos-gloved fingers hopped across the seething keys. All aboard that's coming aboard! All a-ground that's staying behind. Skirt hitched around her thighs, Sweetness pounded down the track. Romereaux passed her effortlessly. Behind them, Uncle Neon closed his amber eye and opened his green eye. Catherine of Tharsis cleared her cylinders with a shout of steam. Cranks flailed, wheels spun. Like a crustal plate shifting, the behemoth began to move.
Sweetness saw Romereaux snatch at the bottom rung of the companionway as it retracted. Then it was past her head and moving in utterly the opposite direction. Sweetness spun on her heel and raced after the receding ladder. House-high wheels churned beside her head. Romereaux crouched on the lowest step, hand outstretched. Mother'a'grace, it was going to be close.
The reaching hand was pulling away. With the dregs of her strength, Sweetness leaped. Romereaux's hand was an iron manacle around her wrist. Sweetness slammed into the relief valve on the luff housing. Winded, she swung from Romereaux's grip. Drive shafts hammered beside her ear.
'I can't...' Romereaux's face read; youthful strength overstretched by sharp reality. Sweetness swung, tried to kick herself towards the diamond tread of the rung. Nail-tips grazed steel. The sleeper-ends beneath her were a blur of concrete. Fall now, and it would be worse than miss the train. She kicked again, reached.
Fingers locked around metal rung. Romereaux pulled her up until both hands had a firm grip. He gathered a fistful of track jacket and floral print summer frock and hauled Sweetness on to the companionway. Metal scarped bare shin, she paddled with her feet. Boot treads found stair treads.
'Close one,' Tante Miriamme called, sheets a-folding as Romereaux and Sweetness scurried past her window. 'And Sweetness, in the desert? A true lady never forgets her underwear.'
© Ian McDonald 2001
is published in the UK by Earthlight.
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