a short story by João Barreiros
In the twenty fifth year of this endless war, on the banks of Lake Saimaa, I finally killed my first Santa Claus. It was pure luck... honestly. Murphy's law dictated that my comrades in arms, who were all better trained than me, arrived late, were held up, or stuck in the viscous mire of some tar pit, were assailed by the cold as the heating systems of their suits started to fail. Better still, some were kicked to death by a swarm of reindeer that swooped down from the sky, like silent Furies. The few that survived had an immediate encounter with a group of elves, or were seduced by the terrible and almost irresistible offer of presents packed with our heart's desires. I don't know what happened to them. No corpses were left to tell the tale. After a certain point, the video cameras in their helmets took only pearls of absence and white nothingness. Mastoid implants break down near zones where the ineffable manifests itself. Radio communications drown in a storm of static. No thermal or infra-red detector works properly. Smart bombs, launched by the cruisers anchored in Norwegian territorial water, go off track, because the logic systems in their paranoid mini-brains get stuck in feedback loops. The targets get mixed up in the protein chips and they turn back and smash into the hulls of the vessels from which they were launched.
How then can we be certain that he is there, in precisely that zone, blooming like some sinister, beautiful flower before the inevitable pollination on the twenty fifth of December? All-seeing satellites suddenly see nothing at all. There's always a part of Finland that disappears from the map, gobbled up by this conceptual negation, fifteen to twenty days before the event.
When this happens, when the nodule's location becomes almost certain instead of just probable, they pluck us from the Barents Sea training camp, put a credit balance into our bank accounts, which will only be truly ours if we make it, and stuff us into the belly of a glider towed by an ancient Tupolev. A deadly slow aircraft with not a single Artificial Intelligence support system. Armed with katanas and rifles more than a hundred years old, they drop us in the sky about ten kilometres from the virtual target. Then it's a panic dive into the morning as the sun rises over the Balkans of Capitalist Russia, with the snow packed wind smashing into the glider's hull, while all of us, or at least those of this elite unit of ten commandos, tangled in the shock absorber nets of our seats, chew psychotropic capsules, anti-hypnotics, serotonin and adrenaline stimulators. We bid farewell to the Infonet which has been with us all our lives, ready to plunge into the autistic silence that envelopes all mysteries. The Imagos of family members and loved ones shatter into scattered points of light on our retinas. The synthetic voices of our virtual advisers are suddenly replaced be a menacing carolling which repeats, Silent Night, Holy Night ...
"Shut this shit off will you", shouts Yosef Wu, our salariman lieutenant. "And block all sound reception. Are you stupid or what? You can't wait to hear what you didn't ought'a. Am I right?"
Big Corporation officers don't bother me. The suit may be an expert with the katana he inherited from his great great grandfather, who was cremated in the Tokyo Bay bombing. He may have a laser implant in the little finger that was cut off by the Yakusas, but to me he's still a cretin who couldn't get to level thirty in the AIDS hunt game. Even so, I obey him, as do my comrades. The truth is, I hate these subversive carols. I hate all this talk of peace when the only thing they really want is to lead your children astray, if you have any. So I touch my wisdom tooth and, with a single bite, switch off the voices from the other side of the universe. And here I am in total silence (the horror, the horror) with the wind blowing in from the other side of the cabin, my arms crossed, my stomach churning, as I wait for touchdown.
Up front, in the cockpit, the pilot yells, "Origamis, origamis." The lieutenant replies, "Push on! Push on! The attack menu must be implemented to the letter!"
I'm in the first row next to the pilot's cabin so I can see what he sees. Suddenly the increasingly intense grey of the dawn sky fills with fluttering scraps of coloured paper. They are flocks of fragile brightly coloured paper birds, grasshoppers, butterflies, griffins and phoenixes. They stick to the windscreen with damp cellulose suckers. More and more and more, layer after layer they come, like a plague. They blot out the pilot's field of vision, who by force of circumstances has neither radar nor an automatic pilot to assist him. "We're going to crash", the pilot comments dully, as he merely confirms the inevitable, "pine trees ahead, crash positions ..." I bend at the waist, put my hands behind my neck and bend my knees ready for impact. Our idiot lieutenant does the same, singing out the Corporation Anthem at the top of his voice, as do all of us, brothers-in-arms, while we plummet towards the kiss of gravity.
Have you ever trashed a car? Have you felt the compression of time as a wave of adrenaline courses through you veins? Have you ever felt things slow down so they never seem to stop? To crash like this, blindly, inside the belly of a glider, into terrain studded with pine trees, is a similar experience. It's an ecstatic feeling, like the apparent death syndrome. Technological breakdown is always orgiastic. Bang, BANG, BANG, goes the moulded plastic belly of the glider as it scrapes treetops, snow and rocks. The wings retract to lessen the impact torques. The aircraft's structure collapses to absorb the multiple impacts. Air bags inflate into our faces like vast mushrooms. In the cockpit, the pilot is yelling his head off until there is a sharp CRACK and then he yells no more.
Finally, when the glider comes to rest, oh miracles of miracles, just one more among the many others on this numinous day, I find myself alive, intact and fit. Our pilot isn't so lucky, he's been skewered through the midriff by a branch, like some vampire from another story. The branch has punctured the polymer shell of the cockpit and pierced the hull from side to side. I get up, my legs trembling, I release my safety belt and deflate the air bag. Little festive lights glitter near the pilot's burst chest. Reflections dance on the blood spattered glass balls which adorn the fronds of the invading branch. Little stars twinkle at the end of each frond. "Shit," comments Adelaide, a veteran of seven missions. "We're too late! The fucking trees are already decorated!"
"Out, out, out", orders the lieutenant, somewhat obviously. "Cock your rifles, fix bayonets, check your ammo. All wounded are to be abandoned. We've got no time to waste on sympathy or pity. Anyway, there's no radio contact so we can't call up EVAC."
Of the ten commandos who had started out, only six are still active and totally operational. We are blind and deaf to the rest of the world, as always in this type of warfare, but raging and raring for real combat after years of VR training.
The glider did not snap in half because it is almost elastic. There are however gashes in the hull through which the icy wind blasts. The door is now at 45º to the ground and has to be smashed open. Out we fall, one by one, onto the ground, that magic was slowly transforming.
It's cold here, a few kilometres from the lake, ten degrees below, on this, the morning of the twenty fourth of December, but not as cold as could be expected. The Finnish climate is reasonably temperate, even during the winter, believe me. Even so I stamp my boots on the ground trying to warm my numbed feet. Still high on adrenaline I look at my wrist compass, but I might as well be looking at a sundial at midnight. The needle spins wildly in search of a non-existent North... That means we're in the right spot, and that we should head on to where reality is even more tenuous. A late dawn rises over the tops of the trees spared by the glider, birds sing, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way... Holstein has fun trampling some origamis that have landed nearby. The creatures flutter all over the place, screaming with pain. They try to escape, but the water and snow makes their shiny paper wings heavy and Holstein is implacable when he gets going.
"Disperse, head for the lake, if in doubt smell the air ..." suggests Yosef, didactically, as if we hadn't had hours and hours of detailed briefings. "The Nodule must be near the lake bank. At least that's the location of greatest instability in all the GEOSAT photographs. Don't let yourselves be disoriented by what you see around you, don't wander off the correct route, only open fire if challenged. Holstein...! I'm talking to you! Attitudes like yours have seen off much better commandos than you. Control! Control! Control! Understand?" Holstein stopped trampling paper creatures animated by the magic of Christmas and nods, pissed off. He should say "Yes sir, Lieutenant, sir!", but doesn't, more than enough reason for another black mark when we get back to home base...
We start to walk, there's nothing else to do. We walk carefully, our weapons at the ready, about ten metres apart. Around us, dozens of varieties of lichens glisten on the bark of the pine trees as if they were connected to an electrical micro-current. Further on, branches covered with snow, hung with icicles, tinkle ancestral melodies. Really... there's nothing chaotic about the sounds we hear, they're old Christmas carols forgotten on the tracks of a vinyl disk. There are presents everywhere, heaped around the trees, hanging from branches, next to snowmen. There are more and more snowmen, each with a bowler hat and a carrot nose, they wink their beady eyes and smile, holy Sony, how they smile, as if they were inviting us to stay there for ever. As if it was possible to forget our standing orders and to tug at the ribbons on the presents and have a jolly Christmas with our comrades and guests.
"Have you ever thought of opening one of those parcels?" asks Louis F. to no one in particular. "D'ya think they're for us? Just for us and for no one else?" "Silence", growls the furious lieutenant, as he freezes, his finger raised. "Remarks like that can only jeopardise the mission. Of course the presents are for you, fuckface! All of them! Any of them! But be careful. If you go near them, if you even think of having a peek at one of then, I promise you, I'll blow your brains out here and now, in front of everyone and fuck the insurance! Did you all here? Don't you see that you're all lost if the think like that?"
"Shit," exclaimed Stela, bending her knees and pointing her bayonet towards a row of white bunnies each the size of a six year old child, all in a row, dressed in waistcoats with shiny buttons. They stand there immobile, smiling, with their paws behind their backs, as if awaiting inspection. Some of them are wearing bow ties. Others sport multicoloured caps or woollen bonnets with holes for their ears. The does, for there are an equal number of lady rabbits too, have lace kerchiefs on their heads and each has a litter of little bunnies with oversized nappies on their bottoms. There they are, forming a living barrier across our path, singing. As if song was a weapon, the idiots. As if pacifism could prevent violence.
"Fire at will," Josef said quietly. We all obey. Our weapons are not automatic. Automatics usually jam, where magic rules. We are using technology that is over a hundred years old, but still it works. The archaic smell of cordite mixes with the perfume of pine needles. Bloody tufts of fur circle through the air, squirts of rodent blood tint the impossible whiteness of the snow. Baby bunnies are skewered on bayonets. Holstein, who likes this sort of thing, roars with laughter as he rapes does with his bayonet. The animals do nothing to defend themselves. They let themselves be killed like flies... and as they die they sing, sing, sing...
Have I already mentioned the seductive effect of subliminal projections? The hidden images on the television which make you buy a new Nintendo console? Or the services of a Call-boy /girl? Or a cup of Novi-Cola? Here the messages are transmitted via innocuous ditties. The messages are terrible, because they penetrate via auricular projection. Messages which work on our feelings, which jerk an easy tear, hypocritical peace among men. Messages which tell us to give rather than buy. Messages that offer presents. Everything, everything we want, in exchange for peace, all to sweeten the taste of defeat.
Once the massacre is over, comrade Adelaide sighs, and almost drops her rifle. Horror, horror, she murmurs quietly in a state of shock. Holstein goes over to her, takes hold of her elbow and whispers in her ear: "Shut it bitch! Don't you understand anything? Have you never eaten game or domesticated rabbit? They're copies, nano-constructs, take no notice." What a mistake. Holstein, what a yo-yo. That not how to debunk new beliefs. Adelaide takes the katana from her belt, in a move that months of training have made second nature, slashes. And lo, there lies Holstein, with half a metre of steel sticking out of him, looking bemused as he watches his guts slither from his belly. He falls to his knees, hoarsely shouting, "Evac, Evac, Mayday, Mayday." It's the last thing he says. Yosef finishes him off with a bullet in the back the head and then turns to Adelaide and shoots her too, there and then, like he was swatting a fly, before she could react or pick up the rifle she had dropped moments before.
We do nothing to stop him. This time, Yosef was right. There was no point in prolonging the agony of fools. It is pointless to let someone who has been seduced remain among the pure of heart. Worst of all, there's now only four of us. Four of us on the edge of the genius loci. One day before the Christmas apocalypse.
"Change of tactics..." says the lieutenant, lighting a cigarette (as illegal as it is politically incorrect), so that the smoke would disperse the excellence of holier perfumes. "It's not a good idea for us to approach the factory in a group. As you can see the nearer we get, the greater the seduction will be. The last thing I want is for the group to auto-destruct. Each man for himself, from now on. Remember, the main objective is to eliminate the red motherfucker with maximum prejudice. Forget the elves and reindeer. Forget the biosimulacra. Kill him before midnight! Understood?"
In cases such as this, I don't know what's worse. Diving ahead into complete mystery, prey to all sorts of temptation, or to advance terrified, with a handful of psychotic comrades who could turn against me at any moment and shoot yours truly in the back. Out of sight, I'm not only no longer a target, but I can't communicate with them. The mastoid aerial implant doesn't work. The Infonet no longer projects access logons on my retina. It's impossible to see my position on a virtual map. All I can hear are carols, the jingling of a thousand little bells, the Christmassy snapping of icicles, the clicking hooves of a band of flying reindeers, up in the sky, hidden by low cloud. Bayonet fixed, my teeth gritted, I forge ahead. There is an unbearable variety of smells in the frigid air. The smell of Christmas cake, mince pies and freshly baked bread. The smell of toasted sugar on thousands of bowls of creme brulée. The smell of turkeys roasting. But for me, who has been through a year of intensive aversion therapy, and who can only bear to eat boiled vegetables and sushi, these aromas seem putrid and revolting, too rich, carcinogenic and lethal. My sense of smell guides me to the edge of the lake. The wind is blowing from the shore, carrying with it the ineffable molecules of corruption. From the factory. The ogre's lair.
In the distance, to my left, I hear screams half stifled by the branches and by the irregularity of the terrain. A lone shot rings out, immediately followed by the neighing of many reindeer. I shrug my shoulders and press on. I have been trained to ignore such appeals. Real or false cries for help. Pathetic appeals to sentiment.
There are more and more presents, each with my name on the visiting cards, hanging from the branches. Elves with rosy cheeks, red bonnets and woollen booties, man stalls, at the edge of the track, that heave with sweetmeats piled on linen tablecloths. They beckon to me to put down my weapon and to approach them, they smile and wave mugs full of steaming mulled wine. I push on, not even wasting time to kill them one by one. It's pointless, there are thousands of them, they sprout from the ground inside mushroom/wombs, they're no more than the support sub-systems of a much more complex and vast unit. No one knows if this infestation is the nano-technological product of some socio-terrorist organisation bent on sabotaging the festive season trade. If the producers of such systems exist, they are undetectable because the nano-constructs decompose rapidly, as soon as the nodule is eliminated. It could well be that the Santa Claus anomaly is the initial phase of some exotic invasion. If it is, it's one of the strangest invasions ever conceived, for it aims to destroy mankind by granting its most secret desires. A strategy first thought up by the Greeks at Troy.
Two hundred metres further on, I am confronted by an army of furious toys hidden in a low lying mist caused by the steam from the micro-boilers that power some of them. It is a barricade of toy trains with bulging eyes and gaping maws that spew puffs of coloured smoke. Porcelain dolls dressed in lace, armed with needles. Jack-in-a-boxes jump from gilded boxes. Clockwork harlequins, with keys turning in their backs. Red fanged teddy bears with the indispensable red kerchiefs around their necks. Tic-Toc, some of them yell defiantly. Hello Hello, others say in a more sociable tone. Tooot, scream the toy trains, with furious faces, their wheels spinning wildly, ready for the final charge.
I, for my part, close my eyes, concentrate, invoke hypnotic codes that transform me temporarily into a berserker. I bite my lip, which is numb with cold, and attack. Now is the time for you to ask why I am attacking an advance guard of toys? But you already know the answer. Did you never destroy a toy when you were children? Did you never open up a doll's tummy just to see how it worked? Have you never hurled a clockwork car at a wall? Have you never cut an unwanted book into shreds with blunt ended scissors? Did you never twist the neck of your little sisters' dollies? Have you never compelled your balsawood plane to make a forced landing, without fuel, without wheels, without anything to protect it from certain destruction? If you have done any of these things, then you already know the reason why. If this report exists and you are reading it, it's because I survived the bites, pricks, nips, pinches, trips and burns inflicted by those who wished me ill. I survived and left a mini Verdun behind me. I hadn't known that dolls cry and scream as they die. But they do. Their call for their Mummies and Daddies in beautiful pre-recorded voices. The Disney syndrome has arrived here too. Anthropomorphism is part of the enchantment.
The battle lasts less than ten minutes in real time. Unhappily for me, my poor organism, speeded up as it is by a cocktail of neuro-stimulants, experiences it as a languid two hour massacre. Afterwards I emerge shivering with cold, exhausted, with my muscles burning with cramps caused by an excess of lactic acid. I can hardly feel my left arm, which has been scored by dozens of nippers and agile four fingered hands. My ankles are scalded as a result of the attentions of the fire boxes of the trains which have penetrated my boots. The kevlar jacket under my anorak has burst as a result of the impacts of the shells fired by lead soldiers. Some evil-wisher must have increased the ballistic impact of these tiny projectiles. They damaged the jacket but did not penetrate it. Better luck next time! That's why I'm still alive and on my way to the Nodule of Uncertainty.
Tiny dolls' arms crack beneath my boots. Blue eyes roll in porcelain eye sockets. Teddy bears are still trying to re-fill their gaping bellies with the stuffing that serves them as intestines. Overturned locomotives, let out one last sigh of steam against the impossible whiteness of the snow.
I push on, indifferent, the worst is still to come.
As I approach the banks of Lake Saimaa, it is as if I am gradually submerged in some terrible fragile Spring, here in the depth of Winter. The ground has warmed up. The snow first turns to slush, then into puddles of mud and then thaws completely, to reveal tufts of lichen and luxuriant grass. These were, as my instructor once told me, the secondary effects of nanotech contamination. The heat is produced by thousands of invisible devices that break down the minerals in the earth into their component parts. The heat, which has to go somewhere, disperses into the air and arouses frozen seeds, hatches the insect eggs and makes tiny forest flowers bloom.
I can already see the thatched roof of a giant cottage in the distance, under the treetops, a few hundred metres away. The Christmas carols are now louder and more insistent, but cannot muffle the sound of hundreds of tiny hammers on the production lines. It is not difficult to imagine rows of ruddy faced elves, with white beards, tools in hand, standing at their work benches, tap, tap, tap, as they put the final nail in a puppet's neck, or the last screw in the boiler of a grinning locomotive.
I've used up all my ammunition in the massacre of the bunnies and in the battle with the toy army. There is no point in using tropic mines or semi-smart grenades, for the detonators fail, as soon as they leave my hands. So I drop my useless rifle and my slowly rusting bayonet. I draw my katana which has a blade one atom thick. Thus armed and limping like some aged samurai, I enter the clearing.
I'm not the first to make it. Twenty reindeer lie dead in the cottage car park, next to the carcass of a giant sleigh. Reindeers, their throats cut and thoraxes exploded, lie with their hooves in the air, their eyes fixed in a furious glare. Two of my comrades, Helena Yu and Eduardo Piau, lie among them, gored by the antlers of the dead beasts. Twirls of steam rise from the lake, near the outlets that emerge from the rear of the factory. Windmills, made of a material I cannot identify, spin shrilling with euphoria. I hadn't noticed that much of the evening had already passed. A few hours ago it was dawn. Now it's dusk. I have to get a move on. He is so strong at night... All is lost, if I don't get him now. Luckily I haven't been noticed. So much the better.
The cottage door is unbolted. Santa always welcomes mankind with open arms. Even your humble chronicler, who draws nigh, his heart brimming with evil intent.
Triiing, rings a small bell over the doorway. The door opens into a living room. A fire of crackling pine cones burns in the open hearth. The smell of pine needles wafts from a Christmas tree standing in the corner, next to the window. A kettle steams on the fire. The carpets, smeared with the mud from my boots, soften my step. Katana at the ready, I just stand there.
Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas, says an enormous creature dressed in a red first used by Coca-Cola. Its belly almost bursts over its leather belt. Its face is hidden by a pair of spectacles and a huge white beard which reaches down to its belly. Welcome to my home, Ricardo Wei.
Santa Claus is reclining on an uncomfortable throne made of reindeer bones. His boots shine as if they are made of living tissue. His belt buckle is engraved with an indecipherable series of runes. His gloved hands rest on his rotund paunch.
"How do you know my name? What is the meaning of all this? Who are you?"
"You know perfectly well who I am. The creature replies in a voice like thunder. Just as I know who you are. Just as I know the names of all the boys and girls in the world... I got the letter you sent me twenty years ago, Ricardo Wei. If you have behaved well, if you have been a good boy, the toys you asked for are here...
I feel my knees tremble, my throat is dry, there's not a drop of spittle in my mouth. None of the chemicals that course through my veins can control the terrible fear this creature inspires. Lies, all lies. But still, this madness, this assault on the most elementary principles of reason, repeats itself year after year. Every year a new anomaly appears. Every year he returns stronger and more enticing in an exponential multiplication, ready to dump billions of tons of toys on roofs, window sills, verandas and down chimneys all over the world. It's economic sabotage on a planetary scale. But how does he know my name? How does he manage to by-pass the Infonet access protocols? How does he manage to make an origami move, to make a bunny sing or a reindeer fly?
"I know why you came to see me Ricardo. I know you think I'm a nano-construct and not the real thing... A little bird told me you sold your soul to the Gates/Sega/Nintendo Corporation. A little boy who doesn't believe in fairies any more is a sorry thing. Sad is the man who has lost his sense of wonder. Put down your katana, salariman Ricardo Wei. Join in the Christmas spirit. Give me your heart and take your presents..."
I back away in panic until my way is blocked by a table that almost completely fills the little room. On the table there lie the comic my father tore up in an educational rage when I was seven, which I never saw again, and the passenger aeroplane kit, with take-off flashing lightslights, that someone gave to a school chum. I only saw it once but even so I was seized with a terrible desire to have one just like it, but never did... There is also a complete kit of a reproduction of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, with paints, brushes, everything, and a genuine Frankenstein's monster mask in soft rubber, and the clockwork tin horse, with a key in its back, that my brother broke and threw in the dustbin without saying anything. And... and...
I wrench my gaze away from the table. The presents are as unbelievable as pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. My instructors told me that getting what you always want is like dying a little, like losing the ability to wish for the impossible. I raise my katana, holding it firmly in both hands.
"Do you still refuse, Ricardo Wei? Can you betray your heart's desires with such a gesture? Then kill me, if that's what you want. Deny magic and surrender to the virtual. You know what they say, don't you? Resistance to temptation only works the first time you are tempted... But I'll be here next year my boy, I'll be waiting for you... HO HO HO Merry Chris..."
The katana falls in an implacable arc. The mono-molecular blade slices through Santa Claus' neck, deeply as if it were butter and emerges from the other side with a soft plop. The creature's head separates from the immense body, curves through the air and lands near the fire. Not a single drop of blood spurts from the severed neck. Still seated on the throne, Santa's body deflates as if it had been full of air. Soon the empty wrinkled red suit disappears. The throne disappears. The Christmas tree disappears. All the presents on the table disappear. The cottage walls transform in a sudden whirl of ash. The floor beneath my feet shakes and loses the texture of carpet, floor boards and stone and is just mud and snow once more. In a few fractions of a second the toy factory also vanishes. The sleigh vanishes from a yard that is now nothing more than a muddy hillside on the edge of a frozen lake.
And here I am alone, under the emerging stars, trembling, surrounded by only the bodies of my dead comrades. The anomaly has been spirited away as if according to some plan.
I look up at the sky. Satellites flash in the heavens, visible once more. A strain of cave music fills my ears, my mastoid implant is on-line again. At the left edge of my retina the Infonet access logons flash on again.
I key in the access codes in the air, as I marvel at this other magic. "EVAC, EVAC," I request to whoever can hear me, "come and get me. Anomaly terminated with maximum prejudice. One survivor... The topological co-ordinates are..."
"Roger," replies the marvellous synthetic voice of the systems operator. "VTOL in approximation vector. ETA in twenty minutes. Congratulations on the success of your mission. Gates/Sega/Nintendo predict a 70% increase in sales this Christmas, and a bonus of 100 000 yen. Congratulations. Op out."
As I wait to be collected I swear to myself that I won't be back next year. Let someone else do the dirty work. Let them suffer the bitterness of impossible desires instead of me. I swear once, twice, thrice and even so I know, as I do, that I am lying. The anomaly was right. Virtue can only resist temptation once.
And Christmas, oh horror of horrors, comes every year...
(Translation by Mark Robertson)
© João Barreiros 1997, 1998.
This story first appeared in both English and Portuguese in Side Effects edited by Maria Augusta and António de Macedo, an anthology published to mark the Second Encounters of Science Fiction and Fantastic conference. (Simetria, Bloco UV - 2
João Manuel R Barreiros, philosophy graduate, high school teacher and compulsive reader, was born on July 31, 1952. He has produced the anthology, The Toy Hunter and Other Stories (1994) and, with fellow infinity plus contributor Luís Filipe Silva, he published Terrarium - a novel in mosaics (1996). He has won the Brazilian Nova prize twice, offered by fans to the best foreign short story published in South America. And, as if this were not enough, he is a regular critic for the newspaper Público.
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