Post by Admin on Sept 8, 2017 14:48:09 GMT -5
Issue #24: “Time to Stand”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy, Debbie and Aiyokusama
Edited by Mark Bowers
Issue #24: “Time to Stand”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy, Debbie and Aiyokusama
Edited by Mark Bowers
There's a time to stand and the time is now or never
A time to fly, time to let go forever
A time to grow, and a time to discover
—Tammy Hyler, Billy Crain, Kim Tribble, “It’s My Time”
Luisa Ortega felt as though she’d suddenly split into two. First, she was Luisa Ortega a busy mother, trying to raise a small daughter, with a husband who was often deployed overseas for months at a time, while training for a new career. When the ‘family’ at the cash register pulled out their guns, that part of her wanted nothing more than to grab her daughter and run—or, if fleeing was out of the question, grab Samantha and hold her close to reassure her that everything was okay, even if she was lying through her teeth. She was ready to plead for her daughter’s life, offer anything in return… if they would only let Samantha go.
But she was also Cadet Ortega, who had earned a black belt in ninjitsu at nineteen and another in kickboxing at twenty-one. She had mastered bits and pieces from other martial arts and combat styles, and taught a women’s self-defense class for three years. She damned well wasn’t prepared to play victim now. And if any of those people so much as harmed a hair on her daughter’s Barbie doll’s head, she knew that there was going to be hell to pay—and she would happily volunteer to be Satan’s top bill collector.
“Everyone,” the shortest member of the trio snapped, “take out your cell phones and place them in the center of your table. Don’t get cute and call the cops. If they show up, well, you know how in the movies, sometimes a hostage gets shot, just so the gunmen can prove they mean business? If anyone here is stupid enough to try calling 911, they’ll be saving us the trouble of playing eeny meeny miny moe.”
He wasn’t a child, Ortega realized. He was probably about her own age, or even slightly younger, but he stood barely five feet tall. “Our children,” she said, projecting her voice as she’d been taught when she’d taken public speaking, ages ago. “They’re—”
“They’re fine where they are,” the ‘mother’ of the armed trio interrupted. “Let them play. With any luck, we’ll be out of here before they know what’s going on, and you can go back to your dinners. Wallets and jewelry; add them to the pile in the middle.”
“Hey!” a boy of about ten or eleven poked his head out of the play area. “You guys are trying to rob our parents!”
The ‘father’ pivoted and aimed his gun directly at the child. “Sit down and shut up,” he snarled.
“I’m not afraid of you!” the boy shot back scornfully.
“Franklin!” a man’s voice yelled. “Sit!”
“But, Dad, he…”
The gunman strode impatiently toward the play area. In the blink of an eye, Luisa realized that he was going to pass her table. A cool breeze seemed to wash over her. It felt as though she was moving in slow motion as she waited for the right moment, rising to her feet just before he walked by. The gunman wasn’t expecting that. His rifle jerked up toward her head. “Sit back down,” he snapped, holding the gun a few inches away from her.
She raised her hands in what she hoped was a non-threatening gesture. “Can we try to work this out?” she asked quickly. If she could catch him off-guard, then she had a chance.
The gunman frowned and started to respond.
That was when she reached under and grabbed the rifle stock in her right hand, tugging it sharply toward her to break the gunman’s grip and forcing the muzzle up, so that it was now pointed at the gunman’s face.
The would-be robber cried out in surprise. Then, seeing his own gun aimed toward him, he raised his hands in defeat.
“On the floor. Hands on your head,” Ortega commanded. “That goes for the other two of you,” she called out.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” a cold voice rejoined.
Ortega heard a shriek from the play area and a gasp from her table. She forced herself to circle around the kneeling man so that she could get a clear view of the play area, instead of turning her head and allowing him the opportunity to take advantage of her distraction. Her heart plummeted. That had been Samantha’s shriek, all right—but the small girl who squirmed and wriggled in the short gunman’s grip was…
“I’m not impressed, Derek,” Paxton said icily. “Just tell me you weren’t fool enough to pay Caddlecott to bribe that waiter.”
Powers shook his head irritably. “Please, Les,” he retorted, “the main idea behind last night’s episode was to create a situation that couldn’t be traced back to us. Well,” he admitted, “in a worst-case scenario, someone might have discovered that the seating arrangements were my contribution, but that could easily be chalked up to a brash young executive trying to correct something that looked like an insulting oversight. Obviously, I had no idea that Mr. Wayne wanted to avoid a central table and…”
“And the surrounding media was just a coincidence?”
Powers sighed. “Well, not one that’s likely to reflect back on me,” he muttered. “Giving Wayne a center table could be taken as an attempt to honor him that backfired. I can recover from that. The other seating arrangements… let’s just say I employed some connections. Discreet connections.”
Paxton’s eyes narrowed. “Trustworthy?”
“They’ll tell no tales, Les. I think you can be assured of that much.”
Paxton frowned. “Well, good,” he said, somewhat mollified. “But I don’t see that our position has improved in the last 24 hours.”
Powers shook his head. “No. Not yet, anyway. But it hasn’t worsened. I agree we’ve gained no new ground, but I don’t think we’ve lost any. And the longer we hold this position, the harder it becomes to push us back.” He smiled. “Meanwhile, we’re no farther from the enemy camp. And they still don’t realize we’re out there…”
Ortega glowered as her former prisoner reclaimed his rifle and backhanded her across the face, then took a few steps back as she gasped and reeled. She rolled with the blow, tried to tune out Samantha’s shrieks and focused on the new, cold pressure at her temple, where the gunman now jabbed the barrel of the rifle.
“That was stupid,” the gunman said softly. “I suppose you think you’re Wonder Woman or something?”
She didn’t answer.
“Hey, skank! I asked you a question. You think you’re some kind of hero?”
“Actually,” a new voice snapped from somewhere in the rafters, “that would be me.”
Startled, the gunman whirled in the voice’s direction, raising the gun and pulling it away from Ortega. An instant later, he gasped in pain, as a crossbow bolt pierced his arm. The gun went off to a few surprised screams, as the round passed harmlessly through a skylight window.
Almost at the same moment, the short man in the play area collapsed with similar bolts in each thigh. At a furious glare from the masked vigilante, he released his hostage, who scrabbled to the far edge of the ball pit.
From her perch atop a metal ceiling strut, Huntress looked at the lone female robber. “Give me an excuse,” she said, training her crossbow for another shot.
The woman shook her head and laid her rifle reluctantly on the ground. After a moment, the injured men followed suit.
Ortega hesitated for only the barest instant before she moved to collect the weapons.
Huntress sighed. “Someone call 911, if you don’t mind? Kids, go find your parents,” she continued in a gentler voice. “It’s okay. It’s over.” She glanced at Ortega. “Not bad.”
“Uh… thanks.” Her cheeks were burning.
Huntress whirled automatically at the sound of the voice. “Wha—I… oh!” She relaxed as she saw one of the other patrons dash toward the play area and the little girl who had been dangling in the robber’s grip moments earlier struggle to run toward her. She seemed to be having some trouble emerging from the ball pit.
Huntress smiled. Another Helena. She swung down from her perch and scooped up the toddler. “Let’s get you back to your mother, huh?”
Selina smiled her relief as Huntress dropped to her feet a short distance away. “Yours, I believe?”
Selina nodded, still smiling.
Helena patted Huntress’s costume solemnly. Then she looked at her mother, beamed, and announced, “Pur-ple! Pur-ple!”
“Her favorite color?” Huntress asked with some amusement, as she handed the toddler over.
“Not until today, I don’t think…” Selina admitted. “Thanks.”
Bruce was waiting when they came back. “I was getting worried,” he said casually, as they crossed the foyer.
Selina knew him well enough to recognize that he’d known exactly what had transpired and was feigning ignorance for Luisa’s benefit. “We’re okay,” she said with a smile. “We just got a little held up.” She let the smile drop. “Literally.”
She caught a quick flash of gratitude in his eyes for the opening. “What?” he demanded, closing his hands on her elbows. “Are you all right? Is Helena?” He glanced at Ortega, who had one arm wrapped around her daughter’s shoulders, pulling her in close. “And you…?”
“We’re fine,” Selina reassured him. “Just a bit shaken up. Huntress put in an appearance before things got too far out of hand. Seriously, we’re okay.”
“Aside from realizing that I nearly got a room full of bystanders killed,” Ortega muttered.
“No!” she exclaimed, shaking her head. “No. All I had to do was sit quietly, like a good little hostage, instead of trying to get three armed hostiles to stand down in a restaurant full of civilians. I was an idiot, and a lot of people nearly paid the price. But, oh no. I’m going to be a cop, so I’m supposed to be able to take down creeps like that, and I just had to go proving myself. Now, I can’t believe I was so stupid.”
Selina put a steadying hand on her shoulder. “It wasn’t that bad. Huntress was impressed.”
Ortega sniffed. “Great.”
“Actually,” Bruce reflected, “Huntress isn’t easily impressed.”
“Wait,” Ortega frowned. “I know jumping into the fray is something you’re used to doing, but is that really what I should be doing?”
Bruce took a deep breath. “At times,” he said. “Ortega… Luisa, I’m not sure how you perceive my prior experience, but if you think I spent my nights jumping blindly into situations where I was vastly outnumbered, I can assure you that you’re mistaken.”
“Then you didn’t…?”
He smiled. “I did jump, but it was rarely blindly. Whenever possible, I assessed the situation before engaging the hostiles. I kept a database of past foes: their strengths, their weaknesses… common MOs… weaponry of choice… every detail, no matter how minor. Before bursting into a room—and I will admit that at times, a… dramatic entrance gave me an effective psychological advantage—I accessed blueprints, so that I could make note of alternate entry points. If there was a way of doing visual reconnaissance—windows, security cameras, and the like—I took it. A blind charge was sometimes necessary, but in general, it was the least effective option and the one that most frequently required medical assistance afterwards.”
Ortega lowered her eyes. “I… see.”
“The other thing is,” Bruce continued, his voice gentle, “while I’ll admit I often did engage hostiles on my own, my people generally,” he coughed, “protested such recklessness. It would be safe to say that the GCPD’s protests would be a bit more vehement.”
“Oh noooo,” Selina drawled. “I wouldn’t say ‘more vehement,’ so much as ‘infinitely harder to tune out.’ Of course, that’s purely a guess on my part.”
Ortega’s shoulders slumped. “Anyone got a pair of forceps so I can unwedge my foot from my mouth?” she muttered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you. I guess I always thought that…”
“That I more or less charged into the thick of every combat and knocked heads?” Bruce asked, shaking his head. “I doubt I’d have survived my first year if I did. But since I haven’t been in the habit of explaining my tactics in the past,” he continued lightly, “no offense taken.” That got him a watery smile.
“I think Samantha and I had better head home,” Ortega said. “We covered a lot of ground before and… I think I need to unwind after what happened at the restaurant. Thanks. I think I’m probably a lot clearer on a few things after today.”
Bruce nodded soberly. “Luisa? I wasn’t there tonight. Obviously. So I can’t accurately assess your performance. If your main complaint about how you handled that situation is that you provoked a situation you think should have been avoided, from what you’ve told me, I’d agree. That’s something you’ll remember if there’s ever a next time. However, if you’re wondering whether there were better disarming techniques that you might have employed, had the situation escalated to a point where your actions would have been warranted… that’s something we can review at some future date.”
Ortega smiled. “Thanks. I don’t know if there are, but it wouldn’t exactly shock me. I’ve taught self-defense classes and we cover a few of those tactics, but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn more. And,” she flushed, “well, I mean, if Batman is giving out pointers, I guess I’d have to be an idiot not to take advantage.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “I’m flattered. In all seriousness, though? While this evening is still fresh in your mind, I’d suggest writing down exactly what happened, to the best of your recollection. How the situation arose, what you did, what Huntress did… all of it. Think of it like a practice test in report writing, if you wish. Our spare time is going to be limited for a while and your account will be helpful when we finally get the chance to go over these events.”
Ortega nodded. “Understood. And… thanks. Again.”
“You’re sure you’re all right?” Bruce asked later. “And I do own a dishwasher.”
Selina smiled and rinsed off another plate under the sink faucet, then handed it to Bruce to dry. “Ah, but a dishwasher doesn’t give us the same opportunity for bonding. I mean, it’s one of the few chances we get to talk.”
“We talk,” Bruce said defensively.
“No, darling. I talk. You smile and nod while you multitask. At least drying dishes keeps you more focused on the conversation.” She tilted her head at him coquettishly. “And I’m fine.”
Bruce carefully dried the plate and two glasses, before he spoke again. “When I saw the report, I thought…”
“I know.” She closed her eyes. “Did you call in Huntress?”
“No. I called Dick. He called her once he realized she was closer to the restaurant. But you don’t know how close I came to pulling on a costume and rushing out myself.”
“We discussed that,” Selina shot back. “Here,” she handed him a fork.
“I know,” he took it. “However, had Huntress not been in the area, I’m not sure I could have abided by that decision. How was Helena?”
“I assume you mean our daughter and not—”
Selina grinned. “Fine. She had no idea how much danger she was in, so she had no idea she was supposed to be scared. And the other Helena was pretty damned good, too.”
Bruce nodded. “What Ortega said before…”
Selina sighed. “Well, it wasn’t exactly a smart play, but she pulled it off pretty decently, at least at first. And, even if she didn’t realize it, getting the creeps to focus on her probably made it a lot easier for Huntress to get into position.” She turned off the faucet. “She’s got heart and she’s got guts. If she lives long enough to acquire better judgment, she’ll probably be a fine officer one day. And since she’s not too proud… or scared… to ask for help, she just might manage it.” Her smile died. “Of course, when she jumped into action—in a restaurant full of civilians, no less—I wanted to kill her myself. Except you’d probably have wanted me to save her life.”
Bruce put a hand on her shoulder. “If Helena had been hurt in any way, I might have understood your reluctance.”
She turned toward him and rested her head on his shoulder. “Well,” she said briskly, “we’re home and we’re okay, and we have…” she looked at her watch, “about another half hour to enjoy her company before she,” she kissed him, “and you need to hit the hay.”
Bruce smiled. “I guess we should go to the nursery and relieve Jim, then.”
Batman’s ribs still ached from the pounding he’d taken from Penguin’s goons the night before. He’d run a gauntlet of them, all intent on herding him toward some sort of execution that had involved heat-seeking shuriken, angry bird-squawks, and trick umbrellas. Lots and lots of trick umbrellas. He didn’t really remember exactly what he’d done to get out of it, but he’d been bruised, battered, and partly deafened by the time he’d confronted Penguin.
Still, the wily old bird had come through with a tip, which was why Batman was now approaching a stark gray building on the GSU campus. At one time, the Psychology Department had occupied the first three floors, with overflow from Biology taking up the remaining two. In time, though, they’d moved to more modern quarters and the building had fallen into disuse. Over a century old, it was not easily accessible to physically disabled students and, while its status as a historical site meant that it didn’t have to be, the university rarely used it now, apart from renting it out to film companies in need of a period piece.
There were no bars on the fifth-floor windows and the security alarm took him less than five minutes to disable. He made his way stealthily down to the basement. The door to the labs wasn’t locked. That was the first sign that there was anything amiss. The locks—a deadbolt-springbolt combination—showed clear evidence of tampering. He was only moderately surprised at the absence of a key-card scanner; the technology likely hadn’t been installed the last time regular classes had been scheduled here.
He pushed past the door and suppressed a groan of dismay. The labs beyond were virtually empty. There were a number of wires, test tubes, and scraps of paper littering the floors: clear evidence of a hasty departure, but no signs of life or activity.
Batman set his jaw. It looked like Hatter had been here, but had cleared out in a hurry. Ozzie must have called him right after I left, he thought darkly. He knew he should have gone last night, but he’d been injured enough to call it a night and give his body a chance to heal. And in the interim, Hatter had packed up and moved on. Great. Still, he could have left behind a clue in the debris. Batman took a clear evidence bag out of one of his belt pouches, a pair of tweezers out of another, and set about collecting data.
Eyes closed, Bruce massaged his forehead. He looked at the blank computer document again, as though it might have magically filled itself out. His jaw hardened. He did not want to do this.
—It happened off-campus.
—Outside campus. And that’s not the point, is it?
—The point is that there were extenuating circumstances. I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve some sort of disciplinary action for drinking to excess. We were all warned about that. But if he hadn’t been drunk and had gotten behind the wheel under Hatter’s control and still crashed into that window…
—But he was drunk.
—If he’s an alcoholic, then he has a sickness. Is it fair to expel him from the Academy for being sick?
—If he’s not seeking treatment? Is it fair not to? Fact: You don’t know that your report will get him expelled. You don’t know whether they’ll suspend him until he gets the help he needs, and consider readmitting him at a later date. You don’t know if they’ll consider mind control an extenuating circumstance. However… you do know where your responsibility lies.
—Funny. You’re usually the first to bench someone who isn’t measuring up. Why are you bending over backwards to let Jandt off?
—Maybe I’ve changed. Maybe I’m grateful for a second chance and I’d like someone else to be given the same.
—Possible. Or maybe you’d just prefer to be in charge of this situation and you resent having to be the messenger and being compelled to do no more than pass the word on to the people who really are in charge.
Bruce’s eyes flew open. Was that it? He didn’t want to believe it, but the notion carried with it an unfortunate ring of truth. He’d admitted to Alex months ago that his need for control was out of control, but this was the first time that it really hit home. Oh, it wasn’t the whole reason—he did think that the top brass needed to consider Hatter’s mind control more seriously. Then again… he didn’t know that they wouldn’t; he was guessing.
He shook his head like he was trying to shake away the idea. Jim was right: he could write the report or he could choose to sweep the matter under the rug—just like Neal Jandt wanted…
Alvin was irresponsible, yes. But as long as nobody held him accountable for his actions, he didn’t seem likely to change. Somebody had to. Bruce hesitated. Did that somebody really have to be him?
He heard a mocking laugh in his mind. NOW you’re thinking about relinquishing control? Get this through your head: the only thing currently within your control is whether you do what’s expected of ANY police academy cadet, especially a squad leader… or whether you close your eyes to the situation because you resent people telling you what to do! Now what’s it going to be?
A red haze seemed to cloud his vision for a moment. Then Bruce took a deep breath, steeled himself, and began to type his report.
When he was done, he read it over carefully for anything that the spelling and grammar checks might have missed. Then he addressed an email to Fochs, inserted the subject line ‘Hardcopy to follow,’ attached the report, and hit Send.
“I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised,” Hush sighed. “It usually happens sooner or later.”
False Face leaned back in his recliner. “Pardon?”
Hush shook his head. “Put a price on the Bat’s head and the hopefuls start coming out of the woodwork. But all too soon, they get so caught up in the architecture of their schemes that they all but forget who they’re trying to catch. I think Hatter’s fallen into that pattern.”
He picked up a glass awkwardly and set it back down on the counter almost immediately. “Some days,” he said bitterly, “my hands hurt worse than others. Do me a favor and pour me some ice water.”
False Face hastened to obey. “I’m still not sure why you insisted on supervising the break-in at Catwoman’s apartment,” he admitted. “I could see that your hands were hurting you then, too. But you still chose to come along and delegate tasks.” He smiled. “Or bark orders, as it were.”
“You want something done right,” Hush said laconically, “you have to do it yourself. Or at the very least, supervise it. I wanted her wary. I wanted her rattled. And I wanted to be very sure that she knew who was responsible. But, at the same time, I knew that if I was too obvious, she’d recognize what I was up to. The trick was to make her think I was trying to conceal my presence.”
False Face raised an eyebrow. “In other words, you know that she knows that you were in her apartment, but she doesn’t know that you know that she knows. And you think Hatter’s lost sight of the main objective?”
“I’m orchestrating the plan, False Face,” Hush snapped. “I have to pay attention to the details. The other players don’t have that responsibility.” He sighed again. “Let me know if anything further develops with Tetch, but I suspect he’s simply going to try another mind-control gambit and forget that he’s supposed to be using it as a Bat-snare. That will make him sloppy, and he’ll be off the board in a few short moves. No, I think the winning piece will surface elsewhere…
“You want me to look over your essay?” Tim asked, surprised.
Cass nodded. “The audio,” she was proud that she’d remembered to use a ‘the’ this time; it was one more thing she was working on, “practice tests work for other subjects. Not essay.” She’d forgotten again. “Not the essay.”
Tim smiled. “Uh, sure. I don’t mind. I mean, I thought you were looking for a sparring partner when you asked me to come over, but…”
“This is spar,” Cass said with a grim smile. “Me against English.”
Tim moved over to the writing desk. “Who’s winning?”
She shrugged. “You judge.”
Tim nodded and sat down. A few minutes later, he looked up. “Okay,” he said, “you’ve got some good ideas, but you’re using a very basic vocabulary to get your point across.”
She blinked at him. “So?”
Tim raised both eyebrows. “So? Cass, you could make this into something really great. Okay, so your essay topic is on setting out what you think should be basic human rights and why. Like I said, you’ve got some good ideas, but… okay. Here,” he stabbed the paper with his forefinger, “you have ‘everyone should have a right to an education.”
“I remembered ‘an,’” Cass said.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, you did. Nice going. No, but how high an education should it be? Like, just grade school? High school? College? Ph.D level? What about trade schools?”
Cass frowned. “Tim… essay only has to be two pages. That’s… too much detail.”
Tim shook his head. “No, it shows that you’ve really thought it through. Seriously, how much education should be a basic human right?”
“But…” Cass hesitated. “Depends. Some countries don’t need as much…”
“Right, but should they? Cass, the question isn’t ‘What are the best rights we can extend to people based on resources?’ It’s ‘What basic rights should all human beings enjoy?’ So…”
Cass hesitated. Tim sounded so sure. “Well, to be able to read and write, yes. At least.”
Tim nodded. “Okay. So try this on for size. ‘Literacy should be a basic human right. All individuals, irrespective of age, gender, or socio-economic status, should be educated to the point where they are able to read and understand a newspaper unaided.’ What do you think?”
Her frown deepened. “Tim… my words aren’t like that.”
“But they could be!” Tim replied with excitement. “Don’t you get it? With a little bit of tweaking… okay, good, you’ve got down ‘shelter’. What kind?”
Cass hesitated. “I… I should let Barbara see.”
“Moreover,” Tim said, scribbling in the margin of the page, “all people should have the right to a roof over their heads, capable of withstanding normal weather conditions for their part of the world. In the event of a natural disaster which is abnormal for the region, new shelters should be supplied as quickly as possible.” He set down the pencil and smiled at Cass. “Isn’t that better?”
Cass gave him a hard look and turned around.
“Cass? What’s wrong? I thought… I mean, you were asking for help. Right?”
She let out a shuddering breath. “Tim. If I write… this… it won’t be me. It’s your essay. But I have to write… mine. Because… because if I ever have to write again, I need to know that I can write for me and not… not copy from you.” She shook her head sadly. “This may be… better. But it’s not me. Sorry.”
Tim was trying to say something; explanation or apology, she wasn’t sure. She was too tense to listen now. She needed to loosen up before her frustration got the better of her. She strode purposefully toward the exercise area and moved into a routine that Dick had taught her on the uneven bars. It wasn’t a combat drill and she found that she had to focus on the moves to a greater degree than she normally would have. That was fine. She needed to focus, to block out any distractions, to lose herself in the exercise.
When she dismounted, Tim was gone.
Cass sighed. Then she looked at the list of essay topics again. If your doctor told you that you had only a few months left to live, how would you change your way of life? She closed her eyes for a moment. “Who, what, when, where, how, why, so what,” she recited aloud. She took a fresh piece of paper and began her outline.
Sergeant Guy Fochs wasn’t overly surprised to find Wayne’s report in his inbox when he arrived at the RTO office at 0800 the next morning. Wayne’s first class of the day had started an hour earlier, and Wayne would likely have been inside campus at some point before that. He’d seen the email yesterday, but hadn’t had the chance to open it then. Besides, it hadn’t been flagged as urgent, and Fochs liked his weekends as much as the next person.
He opened the report with a faint smile. It vanished as he read on. When he was finished, he brought up the roster. Jandt wasn’t one of his reports; he was Trinity Joyner’s headache—or would be. Protocol dictated that he forward this to MacInnes for action. From there… He shook his head. A drunk cadet with political connections, and a possible cover-up… On second thought, this was going to be everyone’s headache. This was going to mean an inquiry, getting IA involved, a possible media spotlight… not to mention tons of paperwork. He looked at the report again and sighed. Then he brought up his email, located the softcopy of Wayne’s report, forwarded it to MacInnes, and settled back to enjoy the last few moments of relative peace before everything hit the fan.
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