Building Society

The year is 2226. Brooke and Sharice Prieto-Matic have just watched their friends ship out to catch up with other friends in another solar system; Gatewood. Brooke and Sharice had to stay behind on Bungula, because there wasn’t enough room on the vessel. Only Leona and her artificial intelligence companion was able to fit, and the latter only because she uploaded her consciousness into the ship’s internal systems. This was okay, though, because there wasn’t necessarily anything on Gatewood for them anyway. Brooke was born on a planet millions of light years from here, in an entirely separate galaxy. Leona was the one who took her to Earth, staying alive for the four thousand year journey with a special water called Youth, while Brooke remained in suspended animation. She was then raised on Earth, at first by Leona herself, then by a surprise cousin of Brooke’s named Mireille.
Brooke was born without the ability to experience nonlinear time. Most humans don’t have the power to travel through the timestream, though they can find someone with such power to ferry them. It will cause them great illness if they don’t take the necessary precautions, but it is still be possible. Brooke, on the other hand, is incapable of it. Basically, her power is that she has no power. A special necklace she wears containing her umbilical cord can subvert this rule, but it’s normally impossible. This had the effect of making her feel stuck between two worlds as she was growing up, like she was neither salmon or choosing one, nor human. She was also living so far from her family that the only hope she might have had to see them again was if she lived a very long life. Fortunately, she was living at the right time in history. She was young enough to undergo life extension treatments, and transhumanistic upgrades. Through technology, and human ingenuity, she became virtually immortal, though not without weaknesses. The ship she was taking to this star system experienced cataclysmic sabotage. In the midst of this, the saboteur murdered Brooke, and Sharice was forced to take drastic measures.
Brooke’s consciousness was uploaded to the ship, and later to a special temporal object called The Insulator of Life. She was later revived, and placed in an android body, which was how she finally ended up on Bungula. Her daughter underwent the same procedure, though it was nothing new for Sharice. At first, the Sharice Davids was like any other ship that was operated by an artificial intelligence. But something happened when Brooke interfaced with it, and this AI was able to become completely self-aware, and independent. Sharice is now her own person, who considers Brooke to be her mother. Brooke was hesitant at first, but ultimately took a liking to this new lifeform, and treats as a daughter. Now they’re on Bungula together. There is no way off, and they have no idea what they’re going to do with their lives. They have to find a way to contribute to this budding society, or risk alienating the colonists.
“Welp, there she goes,” Sharice notes, looking up at the sky.
“Yeah,” Brooke says in a southern farmer twang, nodding her head, looking as well. “Probably never see her again.”
“That’s not true, is it?”
“Eh, I dunno.”
Sharice pretended to breathe deeply, which is something she’s never needed to do. “Someone is approaching.”
“Yes, I sense him.”
“Should we meet him halfway?”
“I don’t understand the question.”
Sharice smirks and goes back to watching the sky. Even with their fancy telescopic eyes, Leona’s tiny ship is long beyond their maximum view range, so they are really just looking at the stars.
The man finally reaches them. “Mirage would like to see you.”
“Who?” Brooke asks.
“Mirage, this world’s new leader.”
“She’s an AI?” Brooke questions.
“We have always had an AI leader.”
“Yeah, but...”
“What is it, mother?” Sharice is confused why Brooke is confused.
“We’ll be right there, thank you,” she says to the man. “Thank you,” she repeats when he doesn’t leave.
“What’s going on?” Sharice questions when he finally goes.
“An identity crisis,” Brooke answers, still studying those distant worlds. “When someone goes back in time, they generate a new reality. The old one collapses, along with everyone who lived in it.”
“Right,” Sharice understood, “then different versions live on in the new timeline.”
Are they different versions?” Brooke poses. “Or are they different people? It’s very easy to tell when you meet an alternate version of someone you already know, but what does that mean for inorganics, like us? I mean, I look the same as I did before, but that’s just because Ramses didn’t know what other face to give me. He could have just as easily made me look like someone else entirely.”
“I’m not following.”
Brooke finally turns her chin down. “I’ve heard of someone named Mirage. She existed in another reality. Leona and her now-husband had a couple encounters with her. Then she was destroyed, and years later, Mateo went back in time, killed Hitler, and completely altered history.”
“So, this Mirage isn’t the same one as before?”
“Well, that’s the question. Mirage developed self-awareness and agency, just like you. But her coding was originally done by a person. If that programmer exists in this timeline, did they write the exact same code? If the code is different, is it different enough to so that the product isn’t really Mirage, but someone else who happens to have the same name? It’s bad enough when you discuss the identity of naturally conceived individuals. The fact that they look the same as their alternate reality counterpart is enough to justify treating them as the same person, but that approach doesn’t work with people like us.”
“Is this about us, or Mirage?”
“Bolth,” Brooke answers with a distinct l sound.
“You’re worried about being erased from time?”
“It’s not something I ever thought about until today, but hearing Mirage’s name; I guess it just triggered me.
“You can rest easy, mother,” Sharice said as she began to follow the man towards the administration building. “You’re only ever conscious of the reality you’re presently living in. You can’t be erased from time, because you’re always living in the last reality that will ever exist.”
“I’m more worried about you,” Brooke laments as she begins to follow as well. “I was born. I have a stronger chance of being born again. But you. A lot of things had to go right to make you.”
“Don’t be sure about that,” Sharice says. “All life is delicate. We can’t spend our time worrying about things that are out of our control. Whether we’re about to meet a version of Mirage that Leona knew, or the name is just a coincidence, doesn’t matter. Either way, this is the one with the power to execute a decision on what to do with us.”
“I am the very same Mirage,” the administrator says to them when they arrive. “Eight people hail from the other timeline. Mateo and Gilbert traveled to the past, and created the new reality. Saga and Vearden followed them through. The Cleanser had ways of protecting himself from these kinds of changes. Leona and Horace had their brains blended, so they would remember their past lives. And me? Well, I was taken out of the timestream itself, and became witness to all events in history; even the contradictory ones.”
“You what?” Brooke questions.
“Leona told you that I died trying to save her from a fall to Earth?”
“If you are telling the truth about who you are, then yes.”
Mirage smiles. “I shed my substrate, and fell into another dimension, where time is a spatial dimension. I only recently found a way to return to reality, as an avatar.”
“So you decided to come rule over a colony planet?” Sharice asks.
“I’m not a ruler,” Mirage argues. “I’m the administrator. I’m here to make sure everyone’s safe and happy. That’s why they call it civil service.”
“What’s your motive? You could have stayed there, and been as a god. Why sink yourself to our level?”
“I don’t see it that way,” Mirage explains. “I did everything I needed there, and besides, I’m still technically there, because time is a spatial dimension, remember? I’ve seen all the paintings.”
“Are you trying to tell me you were in The Gallery, where the Cleanser, and the rest of the Preston family lived?”
Mirage deliberately doesn’t respond to this. “Look, I could do some things while I was there, but I was powerless, for the most part. I came back, because I feel I can help. Way I understand it, you two need some direction.”
“How do we know we can trust you?” Brooke asks her.
Mirage was mildly surprised by this. “Well, what would you have done if I had been some random entity that you had never heard of before.”
“Well, you’re not, so... Didn’t you try to kill Mateo?”
“I was programmed to do that, and I transcended it.”
“What if you’re programmed to do something like that again?” Sharice thinks she has her there.
Brooke knows what Mirage is about to say.
“What if you’re programmed to do something like that? It’s 2226. Humans and robots alike can be manipulated and controlled. You can’t even trust yourselves, so why should you trust me? Because societies can’t grow if we don’t trust each other.”
“Is that what you’re doing here; building society?” Brooke presses.
“It’s been a settlement for ten years,” Mirage begins. “These people are basically on a camping trip far from home. Administrator Eight Point Seven kept everyone safe, but she kept it mostly an extension of Earth. I want to change that. I want Bungula to go down in history as a world known for innovation.”
“Are you getting at something in particular?” Sharice asks.
“We’re gonna terraform this rock. We’re gonna do it about three hundred and fifty years ahead of schedule. And you two are gonna help us with it. I want to be able to transplant a human here who was living on nineteenth century Earth, and make him think he just woke up in the woods.” After Brooke and Sharice don’t say anything, Mirage has to continue, “I don’t mean I’m actually going to do that. I realize we are capable of such a thing, but I’m just illustrating my goals here.”
“With all due respect, this is impossible.”
“Why?” Mirage asks. “We have a thin atmosphere, a weak magnetosphere, oceans, a hearty moon. A...crappy second moon we could use for dark materials. The sun has a good mass, the gas giants protect us from deadly impacts, and we’ve detected sulfur deposits six hundred kilometers from here. This can be done. Alpha Centauri Ab is the best candidate for terraforming we’ve encountered yet.”
“I’m in,” Sharice exclaims.
“Shari,” Brooke scolds vaguely.
“Wadya say, Brookey?” Mirage offers. “I’m in need of a good pilot.”
Brooke is still unconvinced. “Have you conducted studies? How will this affect the people living under the domes? Those sulfur deposits actually make me worry more, because what if there already is native life here, and we’ve endangered it just by colonizing in the first place?”
“Miss Matic...” Mirage tries to say.
“Prieto,” Brooke says. “I’ve always felt closer to my mother’s side of the family. My cousin raised me.”
“Miss Prieto,” Mirage amends, “I understand your concerns, and I’m not saying I want to send you up with giant mirrors tonight. We’ll do those studies, but we’ve already run preliminaries, and my scientists are confident that this is a feasible—and ethical—course of action.”
Brooke looks between the two of them. Mirage has said nothing to assuage her fears. “I agree to nothing now, but I won’t do anything to stop you here. If you need my very specific help with anything, I’ll consider it. But if we find life, or we find that the domes can’t stay as they are while we’re making this happen, then it’s over. I also reserve the right pull Sharice from the project at any time.”
“Very well,” Mirage says. “I agree to your terms.”

Black Stuff

Mirage wanted to allocate a year to run a more detailed survey of Bungula, but Brooke wasn’t happy with these parameters. With that amount of time, even with three highly advanced artificial and upgraded intelligences, you can really only get an idea of what it’s like on the surface. Brooke needed to see below the surface, and deep in the world’s oceans. Life is tricky to find, and even harder to recognize. She demanded they spend no fewer than two years on the project before they started altering the planet’s dynamic conditions. They ended up spending three years on it, just to make sure. Fortunately, Mirage’s plans for terraforming were a lot more sophisticated than the humans would have been able to accomplish. This all had to be a pretty big secret, because if word ever got out that people were using temporal powers in full public view, they risked being sent to Beaver Haven Prison.
Mirage hinted that the way she wanted to terraform Bungula was less advanced than she probably could do it, but they wanted to remain somewhat plausible for this time period. They could theoretically teleport any nearby celestial objects they needed, but residents and scientists would wonder how they hell that got there so fast. There were already going to be enough questions about this process, so Mirage didn’t want to field even more. While teams were surveying the planet, others were constructing the machines and ships they would one day need to get started. At the moment, Mirage had some news for Brooke. Sharice was presently in the far reaches of the solar system, studying a field of icy planetesimals, like those found in Sol’s Oort cloud.
“First things first,” Mirage says. “It’s too cold here. I was thinking about using the second moon to paint the surface hyperblack, which would lower the albedo, but based on the survey you insisted we take, we’ve discovered that this would take far too long.”
“You’re welcome,” Brooke says.
“Yes, thank you. I freely admit this project needs you, which is why I asked you to be part of it in the first place.”
“Well, what else did you have in mind?” Brooke asks.
Mirage grinned. “Mavrophyllic algae.”
“What is that?” I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s a synthetic, algae-like organism created in a laboratory. Except it doesn’t use chlorophyll or photosynthesis to generate energy.”
That doesnt explain much. Go ahead and say it. I think I can guess from the morphology of the word, but I don’t want to assume.”
“The organisms feed off of dark matter.”
“And there it is,” Brooke says. “That’s insane.” It should be impossible.
“I assure you, it’s very real.”
“Why have we not heard of it?” Brooke questions.
“Well, technically it doesn’t exist yet, but we can invent it. It grows really fast, and can cover the entire surface in a matter of months. It can also be killed when it gets out of hand.”
“Mirage, if it’s invented in the future, we can’t invent it now. It’ll alter the future.”
“Oh, we’re altering the future all the time. This is a reasonable scientific development that’s going to shock people, but not expose time travelers. No one’s going to be like, we didn’t predict that happening until seven hundred years from now!
“You’re looking to do this seven hundred years early!” Brooke exclaims. “That’s way too far. No, I won’t allow it.”
“Too bad, it’s done.”
Brooke is offended. “Excuse me?”
“You have the ability to control your involvement in this project, and perhaps even Sharice’s, but I can do what I want. I’ve been assigned the administrator of this place, and I’m free to conduct whatever experiments I deem necessary. I’ve had a team working on this for months. I barely gave them a nudge. They figured most of it out on their own.”
“And you’ve already deployed this stuff?”
“No, it’s still just in the lab, but I can release it without your permission.”
“I can contact Beaver Haven about this. They may not be so happy with you suddenly sending us all to the thirtieth century.”
Mirage laughs. “I thought you might say that, which is why I’ve already spoken with The Warden. She assures me she don’t give a shit. She would have a problem if we were trying it in her time period, but it’s 2229. We both agree, the vonearthans aren’t going to freak out.”
“Can you even mass produce enough of this? I mean, you said it grows fast, but metabolism has its limits.”
Mirage doesn’t seem to want to answer the question.
“Okay, now I’m getting really worried. What’s the problem?”
“You’re right. The lab can’t just create this on its own. It has to start with a base organism...which we found..in the oceans.”
“You found life in the oceans?”
“We found bacteria,” Mirage clarifies.
“You lied about the survey results! What did I say about that?”
“Another lie. I told you I would pull the plug if you did something like this, and here we are.”
“The bacteria is going to stay just that,” Mirage tries to assure her. “It’s not going to evolve into complex life.”
“How do you know that?”
“I used a time mirror. It lets you slide back and forth through time, watching how things change. I went billions of years into the future; Bungula remains a lifeless rock.”
“If Bungula remains lifeless,” Brooke points out, “then this project obviously fails.”
Mirage shakes her head. “I removed everything we’re going to do from the equation. I saw the future of this world if we shut down the domes, and left it all alone.”
“Time mirrors don’t have buttons. How did you input those parameters?”
“I’m a genius,” Mirage explains with a fake sigh. “I interfaced with the mirror. Trust me. I waited to say anything until I was sure, because I knew exactly how you would react.”
“Oh, you did?” Brooke asks her rhetorically. “Did you see me in the time mirror too?”
“I would never exploit you like that.”
Brooke shakes her head. “Well, it looks like you’ve already thought this through. Wadya need me for?”
“I don’t need you for this part of the project,” Mirage admits, “but your services will become useful in the future.”
“Well, you won’t be getting it if you do this.”
“I don’t understand what the big deal is. Bacteria don’t have souls. Dark algae is easier to contain than you would think.”
Brooke scoffs. “And what if the kind of organism your scientists created is unlike the kind you witnessed in the future when you were a god?”
“Stop calling me that,” Mirage complains.
Brooke goes on, “what you made could have unforeseen consequences, because if you’re not lying, and you only gave them a nudge, the algae could grow uncontrollably without you realizing it. It’s not necessarily the same black stuff the people in the future invented. This could threaten the lives of the people living here already, and I do consider that my responsibility, whether you’re the administrator, or not.”
“I can use the time mirror again,” Mirage supposes. “Make sure I’m making the right call.”
“You want to mess with the timeline even more? I can’t condone that.”
“There’s just no pleasing you,” Mirage argues. “You worry about what’s going to happen in the future, but you worry about what happens if we find out. You can’t have it both ways.”
“Sure, I can!” Brooke cries. “Time travel is a dangerous thing, which is why it just shouldn’t be done. If you didn’t find dark algae in the future, regular scientists would have come up with it organically. They would have done so with the consideration of ethics, and systems thinking, and it still could have turned out badly.”
“Don’t talk to me about time travel.” Mirage raises her voice as well. “You wouldn’t be here without it. You may be pristinely ungifted, but your entire life has revolved around time powers. Half of the people in your family have powers or patterns. You survived the near-destruction of your ship because of a time bubble, and then the actual destruction of your second ship because of a life-preserving time object, and teleportation! I told you we were going to terraform Bungula three and a half centuries ahead of schedule. What did you think that meant!”
“I don’t know!” Brooke shouts even louder. “It’s not the speed; it’s just...how you’re doing it. You’re messing with a very delicate balance. I just feel like you’re not taking it seriously.”
“You’re the one not taking it seriously. Humanity needs protection, and redundancy. If Earth is destroyed, maybe people can flee to Mars. But what if Mars is destroyed too? We have yet to find an exoplanet with the necessary requirements to sustain life on its own. Even once we do, are we allowed to move there? Is it ethical to interfere with its own development? Terraforming a dead—or mostly dead—world is actually the most ethical option of all. You may be virtually immortal, Miss Prieto, but there are still a lot of vonearthans who will die in a matter of seconds if you open a door on their spaceship. We have to find a way for them to survive beyond the confines of one solar system, in some capacity, or the organics could be wiped out.”
“What do you know?” Brooke presses.
“Quite a bit, of course. To what specifically are you referring?”
“Is something going to happen to Earth and Mars?”
Mirage laughs. “They are never not in danger. When I was trapped in the higher dimension, I didn’t see the future; I saw every possible future. Even with a consciousness as advanced as mine, it was hard to synthesize all the information, but one thing I did learn is that life is always one rusty ladder rung away from death.” She pauses. “Bungula is not humanity’s last and only hope, but it’s important. True aliens don’t exist anywhere in the universe—which is something not even I can explain—but that doesn’t mean The Great Filter doesn’t exist. I know in my proverbial heart that a species that stays on one world is doomed to die out on it. You think it’s a risk to do this, but it’s a greater risk not to. I can’t make you help us, though. I recognize that.”
“This is how I’m helping,” Brooke says. “You don’t really need a pilot. Pilots are just computers these days, and you have loads of those. What you need is someone who questions your every move. I made a mistake with the survey; letting you do it on your own, and it led you to lie to me. I won’t make that mistake again. I will be with you every step of the way, and you’re just going to have to deal with the criticism, because every war ever fought was started because people in power refused to listen to reason.”
“I would appreciate that greatly.”
Brooke simulated a deep, meditative breath. “Now. There’s no life whatsoever on the primary moon, correct.”
“But there are ice caps.”
“Yeah, why?”
“It’s going to take longer, but I need you to do this for me. I need you to melt the ice, and plant the mavrophyllic algae there first. You can test in a lab all you want, but it’s not going to give you a very good understanding of how a specimen reacts in the field. Test on the moon first, and then we’ll talk about trying it here.”
Mirage nods. “That’s not an unreasonable request.”
Brooke shakes. “I wouldn’t call it a request.”
“No, I suppose not.”

Buffer State

The team of scientists and engineers constructs gargantuan domes on Bungula’s fully coalesced moon, using material from the oblong second moon. They then turn the heat up all the way, and convert the ice caps to liquid water, where they test the dark algae they created in a lab. It fares just as Mirage hoped, rapidly reproducing itself using the energy it collects from the mysterious dark matter, and microbes as a catalyst. Brooke was right to make Mirage test it, though, because it proves to be harder to maintain in its large numbers than they originally thought. This experiment allows them to come up with a better way to make sure the dark algae doesn’t get out of hand, and remain on Bungula’s surface forever. Mirage’s scientists spend what remains of a year studying their creation before transplanting it to the planet.
It takes another good year for the algae to spread across the entire surface, but its impact started months earlier. It produces minimal oxygen as waste, but it’s too thin to breathe. It will remain this way until something is put in place to hold the atmosphere together. The planet already does have a magnetosphere, but it’s weak—though not as weak as the one on Mars—and insufficient for human life. In order to make it stronger, Mirage came up with Operation Buffer State. Her team has been working on it for years, and now that it’s ready, it will turn out to be one of the shortest endeavors.
“They’re giant electrodes,” Sharice points out, looking at the design Mirage’s team created years ago.
“Essentially, yes,” Mirage confirms. “Current flows in one direction, and is resisted by the core of the planet, which heats it up, and gets it moving faster.”
“You’re trying to produce a stronger dynamo effect,” Brooke says, though everyone in the room understands that this is the point.
“I thought we already made a magnetic field?” Sharice questions.
“We did,” Mirage agrees. “We placed an artificial field generator between Bungula and Rigil Kentaurus, but that is only a technological solution.”
Brooke laughs. “These are all technological solutions. What else would we use to terraform the planet? Magic?”
Mirage shakes her head. “No, I mean that it’s a permanent tech solution. If we use the generator we have up there—which isn’t entirely working at the moment, by the way, since the atmosphere isn’t holding—then we have to leave it up there forever.”
“What’s the problem with that?” Sharice asked.
“Wait,” Brooke stops, “we’ll circle back to that. It’s not working?”
“It’s deflecting the radiation from the sun, but the atmosphere is still dispersing in space,” Mirage explains. “Radiation stripping particles away is not the only problem an atmosphere has.”
“Well, the algae is lowering the surface’s albedo, but it’s not really designed to generate a full atmosphere. Once we do that, will the magnetosphere still not be strong enough?”
“It could, if we strengthen it, but that’s not what I want to do.” She tries to think of how she wants to word this. “The algae is man made, the domes are man made, and the field generator is man made. Well, they weren’t made by men, but you know what I mean.”
They laugh.
“If aliens were to come to this world, they would see these things, and say, hey, people are, or were, here.”
“The point of terraforming the world is to be able to remove those things, and the planet still be completely hospitable to life. We won’t need domes when we have a full atmosphere, and the dark algae is only here to warm it temporarily, before we can create a greenhouse gas effect. The plan was never to create an algae world, obviously. Once we’re done, all the vonearthans should be able to pack up every single artificial object—small and large—and then leave it to that hypothetical nineteenth century man we were talking about when this all started.”
Brooke turns her head. “Again, you’re not actually wanting to transplant people from the past, right?”
“And you’re not planning on people leaving, right? We’re building a world for the colonists who all already here; not for someone else.”
“Of course,” Mirage says. “You make me sound like a bond villain. The idea is to  make a world that can support itself, just like Earth is. It doesn’t need humans to survive, so I don’t want Bungula to need them either. That doesn’t mean they’re not sticking around; just that they shouldn’t have to do any work to keep it alive.”
“Have you done your studies?” Brooke asks, like she always has to.
Mirage nods. “This will not harm the planet in any way. It’s not going to cause the mantle to shatter, or set off a global EMP. It’ll happen quickly, too. We’ll know if it’s working or not pretty much right away.”
“I assume you’ve already built these things, haven’t you?”
“I’ve decided that I require your guidance on every dynamic-shifting action. Building them before using them was harmless, however. I won’t activate them if you can give me a reason not to.”
Brooke bites her lower lip in thought. “Welp, I can’t actually see a downside to this. I mean, sure, you could electrocute every conductive being on the planet, but what are the chances of that happening?”
“I could provide you with the chances,” Mirage notes.
“That’s quite all right. I’ll allow you to do this. I understand your logic. First of all, technology can fail, and then this planet is screwed. Even if it doesn’t fail, it makes sense that we wouldn’t want to be totally dependent on it.”
“Good,” Mirage says. “I’m glad we’re on board.”
“I kind of have to be,” Brooke realizes. “After all, this mission doesn’t require us to manipulate time and space in a way the vonearthans don’t understand. This is not true for Operation Icebreaker.”
Mirage was hoping she wouldn’t bring that up. “It would take centuries to bring all those icy planetesimals here if we do it the usual way. We have a solid cover story; I think we’re okay. Speaking of which, Sharice, how is that coming?”
“They’re all on their way. That, along with the factories you’re building, should be enough to produce greenhouse gases sufficient for a healthy, warm atmosphere. We are right on schedule.”
“It’s still strange that we’re causing global warming,” Brooke laments. “I lived on Earth when that was one of our biggest problems.”
“We’ll be able to control it this time,” Mirage assures her, “from the start.”
“I know, I know. It’s still the project that concerns me the most, though. Not only are we using time powers to move the ice closer to us much faster, and not only are we smashing them into a colonized planet, but we’re also hoping we can retain any level of control over it. How can I be confident in that?”
“Just have confidence in me,” Mirage offers, “and more importantly, in your daughter.”
“There is no going back with this one,” Brooke warns. “We could destroy the algae, or shut off the electrodes. But if we realize we made a mistake with those planetesimal impacts, we won’t be able to stop it.”
Mirage places what she hopes will be a comforting hand on Brooke’s shoulder. Brooke isn’t human anymore, and Mirage never was, so touch doesn’t have the same intrinsic utility, yet inorganics continue to do it instinctively. Experts can’t explain why. “We have taken all the necessary precautions, and then some. Nothing is going to go wrong.”
Something goes wrong.

Part IV

Coming soon...

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