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by Rodryn
Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Action/Adventure · #2296267
IAM Image Prompt - May 17, 2023 - The Dirigible - Editing in Progress
         Shattered glass tore into Derik Xiel's skull with each rapid impact upon the cabin door. He groaned, stumbled to his feet, empty liquor bottles rolled upon metal floor, and shuffled to greet the prick that disturbed him. Vecktor Murs stood in his ill fitted suit that matched his sick, frail complexion. Sharp words sprung from his mouth, but Derik did not catch them. Vomit splattered near Vecktor's shoes as he recoiled into the railing.
          "If that was meant to be a joke, I am not laughing" Vektor said
"Urrp... sorry. Wha' yo' wan'?" Derik slurred
"Payment. Now"
Derik swallowed.
"Gonna nee' 'nother 'wo weeks"
"Enough! You have six days to make the indenture payment, or your ship is forfeit, and you get to dry out in debtor's confinement."
         Another belch escaped Derik, he nodded, and slammed the door on Vektor. Staggering around the cabin, he fumbled into clothes only a vagabond considers presentable. Vecktor shouted that the situation is serious, and Derik performed a quick tally. Delinquent by six months and four years left on the principal. Late fees and interest also needed to be counted but he could not do math in his current state. Vertigo rushed over him, and he swore. Had he not bet on table two pair, he would have made a payment. A snort rose from him, Mom and Pops would be proud. He departed his cabin and entered the bridge of Havenlight, his family's dirigible hauler.
         Flight control panels sat in a low power state, and a soft gurgling echoed from various pipes. Derik clutched a side rail as he descended from the bridge to an empty cargo bay. Before everything went to hell, he would rise early with Pops and inspect critical systems. The scent of flapjacks would signal breakfast was ready, and Mom would be cross if they were tardy to the table. A hollow, burning ball sat in his chest as sobriety crept on him. Damn them both for his indentured servitude. They signed him away before he was born when they purchased Havenlight. Lucky they cannot see her in such a state, but he wanted them to see what they did to him. He wished they could be there when the company hauls it off for scrap.
         Derik's heart catapulted into the base of his skull. He missed them terribly and knows they didn't mean to put this burden on him. The pox kills indiscriminately, yet somehow, he was spared. Two fingers pinched his nose, and he gulped the egg and seltzer mix. The Havenlight was all he had left of them and slamming it into a mountain would be better than letting the company take it. No, piloting the open skies is all he had, he cannot lose it. He donned his bomber jacket, glanced around, and made for the gangway. As Pops would say, no use in whining when there is work to be done.
         A short walk from the sky harbor sat a charter office, and the crisp, mountain air helped to sober him up. Stale beer and tobacco clung to the air. Derik frowned, few haulers filled the room and a quick glance at the run board told him why. He approached the issuer's window and rang for service.
         "Any updates?"
"Check the board" replied a gruff voice. "If yous feel like waitin', bars open. Might get som'in later"
         Deflated, Derik slunk into a booth. He nursed a flask as the day crept on, panic rising as the run board remained empty. The few haulers who meandered dwindled in number, and Derik sighed, pondering his options. If a job didn't pop up by tomorrow, he was finished. He considered taking what little cash he had left, top up on fuel and fly away to some distant mountain settlement. His neck grew warm as an angry, imaginary glare tore into him. Pops always went on about keeping a word and paying debts. Funny, he never mentioned anything about paying for someone else's debt. Hard lesson learned, its unwise to carry the burdens or dreams of others. Better yet, don't make others pay for one's own mistakes.
         Boisterous arguing rose from a nearby booth. Two men, a hauler and the other a sleazy fellow who needed a sandwich, went back and forth before the hauler strode off in a huff. Sleazebag gazed around and made eye contact with Derik. He approached with a smile so crooked it made politicians jealous and took a seat opposite Derik.
         "Buy ya a round?" he said
"You ain't my type."
The man chuckled and ordered two beers.
"I got charter for someone looking for a quick, easy payday. Sound like you?"
Derik did not respond, and a chill ran down his spine.
"Delivery to Thunderhead. Twenty parcels. I'll pay three times the premium by weight, and no questions asked."
"Find someone else."
"Come now, friend. I think you will find this to your favor."
He flopped a stack of credits onto the table, Derik's eyes went wide, and he continued.
"Hows about ten percent up front, eh? You'll get the rest upon successful delivery. Name's Lirry, by the way."
Derik's eyes remained locked onto the small fortune in front of him.
"What's the catch?"
"Don't ask questions, that is all. Oh, my brother, Meikal, will be abroad to supervise the cargo. Don't you fret, he won't make trouble. He'll be there to ensure proper handling of the goods. You'll like him, smells like you."
          The beers arrived and Lirry raised his in toast. If one hundred thousand was the deposit, this run would satisfy back payments and knock the principal down to a year. Better still, Thunderhead was only a five-day haul. Derik's blood turned to ice knowing Pops would not approve. That man always raved about taking honest and proper charters. Earn a fair living and sleep well each night, as he would say. But indentured servitude is not living. Derik swallowed, and a flutter rose in his chest.
          "What say you, eh?"
         Numbness crawled over Derik's body as he raised his beer. At the mercy of the company or this crook, only one offered a satisfactory outcome.

         Once the last crate was secured, Derek jumped on the radio while beginning pre-flight checks. He turned the engines over and gazed down at Meikal. A lumbering behemoth devoid of hair with hands the size of Derik's head, he gave the cargo one last check. Traffic control gave the all clear and Derik disengaged the mag-tethers. Every launch sent a euphoric rush through him. Groundside, his indenture weighed upon him, but among the clouds, it was a distant landmark. Mother often remarked to leave all troubles at port, no room for them onboard. A smile crept across his face as he guided Havenlight on the departure vector.
         Numerous dirigibles drifted about, either departing or arriving. He glanced over each one, noting their size, flight path, potential freight and several other factors hidden from ground-lubbers. Cresting the mountainside, a large black and gold airship drifted lazily on the breeze. An Air Marshal ship, bristling with armaments, marked the border between local and international airspace. Its carefree appearance was deceptive, it stood ready to respond to any disturbance. Or in Derik's case, choosing which vessels were due for an inspection. The radio squawked to life.
         "Havenlight, this is Twilight Prancer, heave to and prepare to receive inspection team"
Derik sent his acknowledgement and adjusted speed and course to the specified heading. Heavy footsteps struck the deck behind him, and he turned to see Meikal step onto the bridge. He furrowed his brow and grunted.
         "Cargo inspection. Ya know, In-speck-shun. The thing your kind try to avoid."
Miekal grunted in reply and Derik waved him off the bridge. With both ships side by side, a gurney extended from the Prancer and locked unto the left entry port. He took several deep breathes and failed to calm the fluttering in his stomach. Stupid criminals catch themselves but getting waived through an inspection is an easy task. Except mother would want him to get caught, it would serve him right for taking a suspect charter. Shaking his head, he forced her voice away. As long Meikal didn't interfere, he can talk his way through a wave off.
         He engaged the autopilot and departed the bridge. Miekal greeted him at the base of the stairs.
"No talk. Me talk"
Startled, Derik stared at him, wondering if he had strained any grey matter in the effort to squeeze out those few words. Miekal's glare turned hostile, and Derik nodded. A crisp uniform stretched over the rotund inspector and Derick opened the hatch as he approached. He swaggered in, bloated with self-importance.
         "Manifest and declarations, please."
          Miekal motioned to the inspector, and both men moved away from Derik. He failed to overhear what appeared to be conversation, and observed a thick envelope pass from Miekal to the inspector. A few grunts later and they returned to the hatch.
          "All is in order. Fly safe, ya hear?"
"You as well, brother," Derik replied, earning a grunt from Meikal
         The moment Derik secured the hatch behind their guest, Miekal turned to him.
"I say no talk. No talk"
Derik replied with several, gorilla like grunts and waved his hands in dismissal. Miekal glared at him for several moments before retreating to the passenger cabin. Derik's gaze lingered upon the crates, and an iron ball plopped into his stomach. Airholes permeated the top of every crate. Returning to the bridge, curiosity and dread gnawed at his mind. He forced all thoughts from his mind. No reason to screw up a simple charter or give his employers a reason to back out of the deal. In five days, he will be a short skip away from absolute independence. His gaze followed the sun on its downward arc, and despite better judgement, he pondered on the contents of his cargo.

         Three days underway and Derik was grateful they passed without incident. Miekal kept to himself in the passenger cabin, only venturing out during mid-morning and early evening to inspect the cargo. Such habits fed Derik's curiosity and he caught himself staring at the crates every time he passed. He elected to mimic Meikal and always remain on the bridge to avoid temptation. His parents' memory asked questions he did not want answers to. He argued with them several times a day, and only managed to keep them quiet for a few hours at a time. Dusk crept over the horizon, he confirmed his heading and engaged the autopilot. A yawn drifted from his mouth, and he flopped onto his cot, falling into a light slumber.
         Rapid beeping arose from the flight controls and Derik shot upright. Bathed in red light, the bridge held an otherworld aura as the cosmos shimmered upon the sky. Derik squelched the alarm, eyes darting over the readout. He snatched his jacket and departed the bridge. Frozen daggers plunged into his face upon stepping outside and he scurried towards engine six. He tore open its primer console and jerked the manual start cord. Several heaves later, the engine stuttered to life and gave off a sickly sputtering. After reducing the intake lever to one-quarter, the sputtering turned into a low growl. Derik jumped back inside, hands rubbing his face, and made a note to service engine six when he could. Halfway across the cargo bay he froze.
         A soft murmuring reached his ears. Eyes jumping around, ears alert, he attempted to locate the faint sound. It appeared to originate from the crates. Cautious of his footfalls, he approached his freight, and a gentle scratching joined the murmuring. Balancing on the balls of his feet, he reached the nearest crate and peered into the air holes. Movement, followed by a delicate voice, rose from within.
         "Please... water..."
Derik retreated to the bridge, moving as fast as he dared as a burning freeze enveloped his body. On his cot, back erect, eyes wide, a heaviness fell upon him. He failed to discern the madness that drove him to sate his curiosity, and the gravity of the situation dawned upon him. Desperate for guidance, his innards churned as he reached for his parents, failing, for the first time, to recall their voice or face. A fine time for them to remain silent, although Derik could not hold it against them. What is a parent supposed to say when they find out their child is trafficking for a flesh peddler? Derik doubted Pops would even muster enough strength to give him a proper beating, and he expected his mother to cry without looking at him.
         First light peaked over the horizon, sleep eluded Derik. In two days, he will reach Thunderhead, collect his payment, and put everything behind him. If he could keep himself from engaging in any further stupidity, all ends well. He lowered himself onto the cot, mind engulfed in a maelstrom. Sleep eluded him and he failed to calm his thoughts. He turned his focus to remaining on the cot, forcing time to pass, counting rust spots. A glance at the clock and he swore, insanity clawing the corners of his mind, and he departed the bridge.
         Miekal began his routine while Derik observed from the entryway corridor. He passed a thin, cylindrical tube into each crate and glanced around. Derik flattened himself against the wall, and Meikal returned to his cabin. Back upon the bulkhead, an insatiable hunger, followed by a rush of heat grew inside him. He sighed, and certain Meikal would not return, he strode with silent footsteps to the crate from last night. Moving in deliberate motions, he removed the latch and guided the side panel to the ground, avoiding sounds above a whisper.
         A woman with bronze skin and jet-black hair lay curled on a pile of hay, empty cylinders strewn to her side. She turned her face to meet is, emerald eyes bore into Derik, and he realized her thin, crumpled clothing was insufficient insulation. Tears welled in her eyes, and he shushed her, extending his hand. Wary, she took his hand, and Derik aided her out of the crate and onto her feet. He took her to his hiding spot and threw a glance at Meikal's closed door. His gaze passed over her, and he coughed as he felt a warmness in his cheeks.
         "Who are you?"
She returned his stare before speaking.
Derik produced a canteen and offered it to Nessa. She snatched it, gulped greedily, as water trickled from her mouth. Rising for air, she turned her attention around her and back at Derik and asked,
"What is your name?"
"Oh, just a dead man looking to get by."
Her eyes narrowed and she withdrew to the bulkhead. Derik's face swelled with fire upon realizing his mistake.
"Wait... I didn't mean... Listen- "
         Iron vices clamped onto Derik's neck, and he struggled for air.
"You no look. Lirry say no ask."
          Derik wondered how a rack of beef like Miekal could sneak up on anyone who wasn't dead, and he fought to free himself. Nessa withdrew to the wall, eyes bulging from her skull, mouth agape. Derik's vision darkened. He ran his hands along the wall, desperate for any advantage and found a large pipe wrench placed next to a flow control wheel. His fingers wrapped around it, and he swung to the left of his head. Miekal's grip loosened, allowing Derik to slip free. Ragged coughs erupted from him as he clawed for air. He threw his weight behind the wrench and slammed it into Miekal's chest. Derik pressed the attack, charged, missed his target and stars erupted in his eyes. He flailed the wrench and staggered away and saw brass knuckles on Miekal's bear paws and a vicious scowl on his face.
         "Bad monkey man. Kill now"
         Miekal rushed into Derik, ignoring the blow to his shoulder. Wind rushed from Derik's lungs as he slammed into the deck, and his opponent knocked the wrench from his hand. Miekal dropped his knee on Derik's chest, pinned him down, and threw several, heavy punches. Bright lights burst in Derik's eyes with each impact, and his vision grew dark and blurred. He tasted blood on his tongue and on his face, the cargo bay faded in the background, and all he could see was Miekal's savage smile and glittering eyes. He clawed for the wrench, but it lay beyond his reach. A deep, booming laugh rose from Miekal, and he raised his fist one last time as Derik spat blood in his face.
         Shrill screams erupted in the cargo bay and Nessa sprung onto Miekal's back, clawing and biting. Weight abandoned Derik's chest and he lunged for the wrench. Nessa slammed into the deck next to him, her pained yelp invoked a rage in Derik, a ferocity he did not believe he possessed. A sickening crack erupted from Miekal's knee, he crumbled, and Derik rolled atop him. Warm, red splatter flecked Derik's face with each rising motion, and a wet, crunching sound echoed on each downward stroke. Sanity returned to Derik, and he dropped his crimson-soaked weapon, and crawled away from Miekal's motionless form.
         Nausea swept over Derik, different from the kind present after a night of debauchery, and he retched, unable to void an empty stomach. Nessa darted towards him, her words muffled and incoherent. She placed his head in her lap and he saw a bruise on her cheek. He cracked a bloodied smile, caressed the bruise, and Nessa took his hand while the other shook his shoulder. The cargo bay began to spin, and he felt weightless. If they can stay alive long enough to reach a bar, he owed her a beer.

         Groaning to life, Derik tried to haul himself upright, but a rush of blood dissuaded such movements. Dull throbbing radiated in his skull and his throat bore a ravenous thirst. He gazed around the bridge, memory failing to answer how he got there. His arm hair stood as prior events came rushing back to him. White knuckled grip on the cots edge, he hoisted himself into a sitting position, fighting vertigo and a churning stomach. Nessa strode onto the bridge and hurried to his side. She wrapped her arms around him, steading his swaying.
         "Please, what is your name?"
Derik chuckled then groaned.
"Like I said, a dead man"
He turned his gaze towards hers. Doe eyes glittered, begging for answers.
"How long was I down?"
"A day. The others helped me bring here."
         Derik heard a commotion from below and sighed. He couldn't fault her for releasing the others, but they better not touch anything important. Hunger gnawed at him, and he tried to stand but Nessa stopped him. She lowered him back down onto the cot and strode away, returning moments later with a ration tin and canteen. Nessa tried to help Derik eat, but he only let her help him back to an upright position. The ration tin stood empty in record time, followed by the canteen. A light flashed on the control console, and he frowned.
         "Who called?"
Nessa put her arms around him again, tightening her grip.
"Didn't answer. It rang four times since..."
         Reality slammed into Derik harder than Miekal's brass knuckles. If Lirry sent his brother to watch the cargo, he must have been providing regular updates through sat phone. Whoever waited his arrival will be displeased, almost as much as an Air Marshal if they get flagged for another inspection. He motioned at her, and she helped him stand. Several moments passed before the spinning stopped and he shuffled to the flight controls. Only fifteen hours out from Thunderhead.
         Radar warnings wailed as an air ship approached on an intercept course. Static erupted from the radio and Derik swore, acidic words washing over him.
"Is this the Havenlight? Derik, answer the radio. Now."
He winced, mind racing for a response. An idea struck him, and he snatched up the handset.
"Havenlight to unknown vessel, identify yourself."
"You know damn well who it is. Where is Miekal?"
"Sorry, he has a killer headache and can't talk."
A raspy cough came over the line before Lirry replied.
"Care to explain?"
"Sure, you first. If you wanted to steal my ship, why didn't you kill me in port?"
Silence engulfed the bridge. Derik realized Nessa was trembling and moved his weight to the flight console. She continued to cling to him.
"I see... in that case, your services are no longer required. Surrender my cargo, my deposit and I will let you live, eh?"
         Derik felt flames lick his stomach. Lirry's ship was approaching fast, likely an interdictor which meant he was armed however, cannons and missiles are the least of his worries. Havenlight had basic counter measures and danced like a ballerina at this altitude, but nothing in terms of offense. His hands toggled the emergency transponder, and he waited for a return ping. A frown crawled unto his face as a return signal failed to manifest, yet he knew Thunderhead Air Marshals were in range.
         "Nobody is coming to help you, Derik. Even if they did, you'd have some explainin' to do. Hand 'em over nice and easy, eh? Tell ya what, keep the deposit. I'm a generous man and Meikal is... was a bit of a lug to be around. No harm, no foul, eh?"
         He dropped his head and lost all feeling in his body, and his mind scrambled for a solution. Lirry was right. The sentence for trafficking was substantial and none of it counted as timed served for debtors' confinement. However, he knew the moment he handed over the girls, Lirry will fire on him at point blank range. Derik put his odds at outrunning Lirry at three to one. Havenlight is fast but he never tested her run times against an interdictor. If he did manage to reach Thunderhead airspace alive, his piloting days are over.
         Jagged metal tore through his veins, and ice gripped his heart. He wanted his parents to give up the silent treatment and offer him any advice on what to do. A scream festered in his chest as he watched Lirry's ship draw closer on radar. Sensing his conflict, Nessa hugged his arm and kissed it.
"It's ok. We'll go back quietly. We won't make any more trouble."
         Something clamped over Derik's heart, daggers ripped through his body, and his mind snapped into lucidity. He turned to face Nessa. Her eyes screamed in submission, and she smiled, defeated.
"I mean it, Derik. It's ok."
Reaching a decision, he turned several dials onto max settings, flipped the covers on several buttons and placed a hand on the wheel and another on the throttle yoke. He turned to her and growled,
         "No, it's fucking not!"
His hand slammed the yoke to full open and Havenlight screamed forward, engines wailing under a strain they never had endured. Nessa snapped her arms around Derik as they lurched, the motion caused his head to spin. Lirry shouted from the radio, but Derik ignored him. Surprised screams rose from below and Derik barked into the intercom for them to get seated. Lirry's radar signal grew further away, and the emergency transponder returned a ping.
         A piercing wail tore into Derik's ears, and he watched the incoming missile close in on radar. He placed a hand over an uncovered button and slammed it home once the alert appeared on screen. Muted rumbling echoed in Havenlight as flares and chaff belched from their pods. Diversion successful and a shockwave reverberated across the ship. At least they were out of cannon range, for now.
         Havenlight shuddered as engine six burst into flame, belched black smoke and went cold. Derik placed odds on which engines would fail next, and hoped he was wrong on all counts. He noted Lirry's ship failed to close the distance, and he smiled. However, it evaporated as another engine gave out and a pressure line warning blared. His hands danced across the console and the alarm fell silent. Lirry fired another missile and Derik countered it as well, but it detonated closer than the other. Shrapnel peppered Havenlight's rear, and he heard several twangs as cables snapped, causing the main structure to sag.
         The sun crept upon its downward arc, and Derik managed to get out of missile range. He muttered to himself, hoping the remaining engines lived long enough. Another engine light on the indicator went black, and he felt a drop in speed. Radar showed Lirry slowly gaining on him. His hand hovered over the last countermeasure button, awaiting the expected. Derik was back in missile range yet was not fired upon, and he swore. Lirry planned to board, knowing he cannot run anymore, but Derik did not feel terrified. Instead, a sense of clam washed over him, and he felt whole. This feeling had eluded him since his parents died.
         Nessa remained at his side, trembling. He embraced her, and hoped she understood his decision and forgave him for what punishment she would endure for his actions. Lirry's ship neared docking range but turned at the last moment. Three more ships appeared on radar and the radio blared.
         "Unidentified vessel and Havenlight, deactivate your engines and prepare to be boarded. Do not resist or you will be shot down."
Derik's hands darted across the console, eager to comply. Lirry however, was not as wise, and turned to flee. As the first Air Marshal ship docked with Havenlight, a torrent of missiles streaked through the sky, engulfing Lirry's ship in a black and red crescendo.

         Derik scurried through his cabin, snatching up personal effects under the watchful eye on an Air Marshal. Grunting, he struggled to cram clothes into his ruck, and he smiled once they complied. How he avoided any jailtime was a mystery to him. Granted, the girls put in a good word for him, and he spun a convincing tale where he was deceived about the cargo being livestock, yet he still could not believe his luck. He wished he could bluff that good at cards, would have prevented the whole fiasco. Although not gambling would have been better, and his mother agreed with him. The Air Marshal grunted, impatient with his pace.
         "Hurry it up"
         One final canvas, and Derik was satisfied he had everything. A flutter rose in his chest. The company had seized Havenlight while he was held for interrogation, but they could not possess it until released from impound. Derik convinced the authorities to let him collect his things before hand, and he stood over the flight controls for the final time.
         "Can I get a moment alone? Just wanna say goodbye."
The Air Marshal grunted and refused to move. Derik handed him his rucksacks.
"Ain't going anywhere, bud. Been on this rust bucket since I was born. It was my home."
The Marshal relented, snatched the rucks, and departed. Once the door closed, Derik dashed to the bulkhead, drawing his pocketknife. He thrust the blade between the panels and jimmying side to side, a panel opened and revealed a hollow space. His hand darted into the hole, he tucked Lirry's deposit into his jacket, and closed the panel. Derik took one last look around, kissed his fingers and brushed them over the wheel.
         Outside, Vector spoke with the Marshal but turned his attention upon spotting Derik. He approached, clipboard in hand.
"Please sign here."
Derik glared at the seizure notice and shoved the clipboard towards the Marshal.
"They posses it, deal with them."
Vektor tried to protest but Derik stepped into his face, and he recoiled.
"I ain't signing anything with your company's logo on it. Piss off and have a nice day."
         Derik grabbed his rucks and hurried away. Vektor dared not press the issue. Once word got around that one of the company's haulers might have been involved in smuggling, they tried to force his silence. However, he offered a journalist one of two stories and the company choose as the journalist sat a few yards away. They opted for the one that painted them in a positive light and released him from the indenture, just as the front page read. They even got gratitude from a local politician seeking reelection, and donations.
         Atop the harbor viewing deck, Derik watched as crews scurried over the Havenlight, defiling her. Mom and Pops would be heartbroken to see her go, but an approving hand rested on his shoulder. Mother always said there was never enough kindness in the world and Pops often went out of his way to help other haulers. A voice rose next to him, and he started, the hand on his shoulder was real.
         Nessa greeted him with bright eyes, a wide smile, and a tight hug. Derik returned the gesture, having not seen her since the arrest. A weight lifted from him knowing she was ok. They stood by the railing in silence, Derik did not know what to say. He withdrew his flask, went to drink, and stopped. The flask tumbled from his hands and over the rails, down into the mountain side. Nessa tilted her head at him, and he smiled.
         "Where's your family?"
She did not respond, and her smile fell. Derik did not press her further. He stepped back from the railing and remembered an important task. Derik offered his arm, and she took it and he led her through the streets to the nearest caf Nessa fussed about not having money and he waved her concerns away. As she sipped the tea, she turned to him.
"What will you do now?"
He did not have an answer, and yet that did not bother him.
"Might be able to find work in port. I hear they're looking for experienced tug operators."
Nessa smiled, went to reply but stopped, dropping her gaze. He offered his hand to her, and her gaze moved between it and him. She took it, eyes alight and spoke to him.
"I think my parents are somewhere in the Sierra settlements. We moved a lot, following whatever work we could get."
Derik smiled and nodded.
"I can get us a charter. Do you know which town to start in?"
She shook her head, but Derik expected as much. It wasn't much to go on, but all he needed was a heading. He still had some contacts among independent haulers, there was a man in the Sierra settlements that owed him a favor, and he could make a hundred grand last a good while. He rose, Nessa's hand still in his.
"Let's go find your parents."

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