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Malintzin

When Hope Is Lost [ Airship Quest ]

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It began—as all things did—with the idea of impressing a woman. That was how it always went, right? Would that I could have known that it would ultimately shape her life in ways neither of us could have imagined. It was a token, really. A way to show her that I valued her brilliance. That none so far could outshine her—nor would any be so bold to take her on. It was a challenge, too. A call for her to defy the odds, to tap into that sharp intellect I knew she possessed without equal. 

All I did was put her in danger, and it cost me my life.

Every day at two in the afternoon sharp, fresh flowers arrive. It’s not much, and it’s not terrible, but it brings a smile to her face. She is always sitting by the window, by the workbench which is scattered wantonly with blueprints, schematics; gadget and gizmos; machinations blossomed from dreams past, always thinking of the future—always thinking of the inner workings of something, what made it go? What made it so? Gods all bless, she was a beautiful thing to behold. Bronte Academy was filled with the elite, taught by the elite—and the engineering program was no slouch. Still, she stood a head taller than most—sometimes even literally. We had known each other since we were small—and she had always been Uhltoria to everyone else. But to me, sweetly, kindly—and sometimes shyly, she was Toria. Just Toria.

The new semester began and ours was one full of subjects that would otherwise boggle the mind. Engineering physics, subjects like calculus and advanced designing magitech. We had to have a thorough understanding of solid and fluid mechanics, of the structures and materials we’d be using, statics and dynamics—the list went on and on. To become an aeronautical engineer was a feat all on its own. There were too many employment opportunities in the Rising North not to put our brilliant minds to work and to use.

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Toria was a dreamer, a woman who could put pen to paper and draw from her mind the amazing machinations brought to life. She had this look in her eye and I knew that somewhere in that mind’s eye she was concocting something. Sketching it out in that artistic way she could. I would sit and admire her drawings—her ability to match human need with magitech supply. She could have gone into the medical field—to help those in the war who had lost their limbs to have faith again. To help those who lost their vision to see again.

There were countless patents that could be designed to help those who suffered dearly. It’s not that Terrenus was unforgiving—war was unforgiving, but a necessary evil. At least, that’s what Toria believed to some extent. She wanted to fly, to climb as high as ever.

And so, I pushed her into joining me in the Engineering program, where our final project would be to design our very own airship. In hindsight, I didn’t realize we were feeding a higher cause. I didn’t realize what I was doing when I tactfully placed the schematic where she would see it. Where it would spark the zeal I had come to fall in love with so easily. I didn’t know that by agreeing to help her build it, that it would be one of the most harrowing adventures of our lives, and what the cost would be.

Still, I did. I helped her build, and in doing so, I helped build her.

That was well worth it all.

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“Dozing off again, eh?” Toria jerked awake, her back spasming in the process. She had been hunched over, cheek to palm, elbow to table in such a way that it could hold her upper body. “Absolutely not!” She lied blatantly through her teeth and stretched—as if she had been troubled to move at all.

Groaning at the lack of progress, she listlessly sorted through her papers, “Raffin, hand me my pen, will ya’? The good one.”

Dutifully, he sought the aforementioned pen and—knowing the organized chaos his classmate operated under—found it precisely where it had been left, under the desk, on the left side (her good side, she’d say) where the workbench was kicked for the 1,000th time.

“You need a maid,” Raffin chuckled, striving not to get lost in the creative genius that was Toria’s workspace. Navigating through the mess, he delivered the pen, and Toria set about to making notes, “The Isometric view is coming along nicely,” She noted. Hers was a small, cramped writing—as if, if she didn’t write her thoughts right there and there, they’d be lost within the universe forever.

Raffin leaned over her shoulder to squint at her work, “I can barely read that, what on earth are you—.” She wouldn’t let him finish before cocking an elbow playfully into his stomach. With a guffaw, he leaned into the blow and feigned his injury. “Raffin Warne,” She scowled fiercely at him—a beautiful, dangerous look that made him rethink his poking fun at her, “Uhltoria~” He spoke in equal measure, an eyebrow cocking.

“Nevermind, you. Now see here…” And she launched into a fully detailed analysis of the ship’s design. She covered the refined dimensions of the original idea that Raffin had snuck her. It had been an idea—a seemingly impossible one, or so he had thought. Uhltoria, beautiful Toria had given it new life, new purpose, and made it all the more real—far more real than he ever could have made it. He ardently admired the passion with which she took it on—if only to prove that she could bring it to life. She was determined to do something different, something bigger and better than usual.

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“I’ve calculated the performance, the climb rate—realistically speaking at least. And look here—.” And so, he looked, “I noted the typical striking angles in engagements.” Raffin whistled lowly, impressed, “How long did you study those before you calculated these numbers?” Toria exhaled, eyeing the numbers woefully, “Entirely too long.

“Still, this is shaping up nicely. Got a name, yet?” He scanned her work and smiled at her notes—the annotations for wording, the tables and charts for power consumption and time fuzes, of ammunition and crew notes. She made graceful sweeping drawings of the airship and its armament. It in of itself was a piece of art, and she was all too excited to use it as a boost in her portfolio for future works. Satisfied that Raffin was pleased by her work, Toria glanced at her watch before looking to the door expectedly. Raffin’s brows furrowed before following her gaze, “What are you waiting for?” He asked.

As if on cue, there was a knock on her door and the woman less-than-gracefully disentangled herself from the workbench and acrobatically danced around the mess in her workspace to the door. She breathlessly opened it, eyes lit up to see a small bouquet of flowers waiting to be delivered to her, “Same as before, miss.” The worker replied cheerfully and presented a clipboard to sign. Clearly this was an on-going affair. Toria scrawled her signature—quickly, panicked and cramped as usual before accepting them and practically gliding to the workbench. She arranged them neatly in a vase that was suspiciously large enough to hold them.

Raffin watched, his brow arched steeply, “What’s all this?”

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“Don’t be jealous, Raffin Warne.” She always said his name like that—as if names had power, and—while she had some measure of power over him, he laughed, “Jealous of flowers?”

“There is an ultimate architect somewhere in this world who designed nature—and I happen to be a fan of their design of this particular flower.” She retorted.

“Where do they come from?He asked, squinting at them—they were pretty, purple things. They almost matched the color of her eyes! “Terrenus, I think.” Raffin wrinkled her nose at her answer. She clicked her tongue and sat by the bench and scoffed, “Oh come now. We can’t be at war with all of Terrenus—nature cannot help where it is and when—it simply follows the design of its architect. The genius loci of Terrenus—I happen to find them quite beautiful, honestly. I wish I knew more of them—it might even be critical to designing Genesar ships.” Raffin rolled his eyes and sighed—he hated this subject more than anything.

“Then perhaps you should have gone to that other abysmal academy to study magic instead? Then you’d be one of those biologist mages, or part of that ridiculous religion they have over there. Is their king even real?”

“You watch your tone, Raffin Warne or they’ll cut your tongue out. It wasn’t true, but it earned a snort out of her friend. Raffin was a tall and lanky man—certainly not cut out to be a fighter in the war. His mind was brilliant all on its own. He was set in his ways, despite his good looks and his easy-going nature. Others found it difficult to keep up—and perhaps it was around Toria that he found he was capable of being himself. It was easy to fall for a brilliant mind. Brilliant mind called to brilliant mind, didn’t it? “Do they even have a name?”

“I’ve no earthly idea, to be honest. I didn’t earn my place at the Academy to become a botanist, that’s for certain. Every week on this day this semester they’ve come at exactly this time.” Toria rubbed a petal between her thumb and index finger. They were fragile, satiny-like petals. She adored the brilliant indigo color, the light “freckles” as she called them that dotted the flower. The warm yellow hue close to the stem. Well she certainly thought they were beautiful, regardless of what Raffin thought.

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“Who’re they from?” He asked suspicious. Typical, jealous man, “I have yet to figure that out,” Toria sniffed lightly, defending her anonymous admirer.At first I thought they were a mistake—but they were delivered to me, Uhltoria. I stopped fighting it. I didn’t quite like them at first, but—they’ve grown on me. I see different species depending on the month. I think this one might be my favorite!”

Hey, so—while I’m here. How soon do you think the shipment will be here?” Leaning against the wall, Raffin crossed his arms. It was a critical question—one to show he wasn’t as interested in the flowers as he wanted her to think he was. Toria wrinkled her nose thoughtfully, “It’s been slow since the war. I ordered the materials weeks ago but with international temperatures rising, all I can do is check and keep checking.” It was disheartening—and so was seeing her crestfallen face. Raffin sighed, his shoulders slumping, “Damn this whole thing. Damn the Terran government and damn the Emperor for—.”

“Raffin Warne.” Toria cut him off sharply with a glare, “Don’t speak ill of our Lord Father. You know better—lest you want to be smote where you stood.”

He stared at her incredulously, “I’m a man of science, Uhltoria—not faith, you know that.” She glared at him, her shoulders tense. He knew better—she was right in that regard. They were two different species that coexisted. He was a tinker mage—cocksure of his abilities. Comfortable enough in his skin. She was a Vampyre—wicked and intelligent beyond measure, alluring in her endearing attempt to pursue a mundane and human life. “Well have a little faith in me. We’ll get what we need in time. We still have time before the deadline. Don’t be so hasty.” She chastised him teasingly. He rolled his eyes, clearly miffed at the whole ordeal. His shoulders rolled and he kicked the frame of the doorway before walking off, muttering under his breath. Toria took the moment of silence to admire her flowers.

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It was the dead of night when the ground shook viciously, the sound of metal torn apart like shrieking creatures. Her ears rang and her vision swam. The Academy had long since been asleep--save for the students who patrolled. Perhaps more of them would be dead if not for the warning. Still, Toria couldn’t help but swim in a mind fog as she was viciously shaken until she woke. She couldn’t hear properly--couldn’t see properly in her groggy state. Her room mate screamed and the sound of crashing jerked her out of reverie, “What is it? Dahlia what’s going on?”

The unmistakable sound of engines roaring and Toria tore out of bed, running to the nearest window. There was fire--fire and razed earth. The ground had split open as if hell had come to the surface. Molten earth, warped and mutated--the city was decimated and an orchestra of screams and pleas--of gun fire and brilliant flares of magic

 Rising high over the debris and cloudy smoke of flame was the haunting silhouette of Aezar's Howl--That’s a High Lord’s ship! They can’t seriously be mobilizing! What is happening!?

 She dragged on clothes--the halls were frantic with students trying to evacuate. She shoved--biting back the pain of elbows to her ribs, her arms and face. Everyone was scared--and rightfully so!

She felt a strong grip on her arm that yanked her through the chaotic masses and gasped, “They’re coming for the ships!” Raffin yelled over the dull roar, “We’ve gotta get out of here!” Ice-cold fear ran down her spine. “Our plans...our plans!” She viciously began shoving her way through until she found an emergency exit. Before she could shoulder the door, a wall nearby exploded, sending debris--and limbs of those too close--flying.

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The sheer panic was too much, and a stampede broke out as any measure of a civil evacuate evaporated as quickly as the body incinerated by the blasts. Toria felt the sickening crack of a rib break, buried under shattered wood and twisted metal, pressed deeper and deeper into the ground--gasping for air. She thought she had heard Raffin somewhere--somewhere in the insanity that was spiraling out of control around them. She gasped for air, but her vision was swirling.

What about my flowers…? Her hazy thoughts drifted off, What happens to them now…?

She shuddered awake--her body throbbing intensely--though she felt true pain when she took a ragged breath. Toria fumbled dumbly, feeling dirt, chunks of concrete and torn grass. She wasn’t wholly trapped, she realized and began the painstaking process and wiggling herself out from the pile. Dirt and dust caked her face and she quickly wiped her vision as clear as she good. A good portion of the Academy had been decimated--she almost wasn’t sure where she was. Where the infrastructure once housed memories and tokens of pride throughout the years was now eerily abandoned and warped. It hurt to breathe--yet she choked back a panicked sob and stumbled to her feet.

They weren’t prepared for this--how could they have been? For as far as she could see there was a carved path of annihilation. Fires continued to stretch high into the air--corpses littered the ground all around her feet. She could see the shed--barely just that, and she stumbled for it. The gore she witnessed led bile to rise in her throat and she paused long enough to relieve herself.

The shed was charred--her flowers likely crumbled to absolute nothingness. Toria nervously raked her hands through her hair, glancing around feverishly. There had to be a place to go--a safe haven. What had the faculty taught them again!?

Aah, but she had spent far too much time doodling and dreaming of a reality so far from this one. She cursed under her breath and winced at the sharp pain--she needed medical assistance and fast. Vampyre she was, she wasn't indestructible.

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A hand slipped around her mouth and muffled her screams and dragged her down, “Sshh--.” Raffin’s serious tone both panicked and thrilled her. You’re safe, but not for long. The city is crawling with Terrans. They attacked the city and targeted the Academy.” He spoke in quiet whispers and slowly the knots in her stomach thought to relax--but barely so. From the corner of her eye--she same the soft shimmer of protective magic and recognized it as Raffin’s. It was a long canister--it was a map cannister.

Wordlessly, Toria pointed to it, and Raffin nodded slowly, letting her go. Against her better judgement, she crawled for it, her lungs feeling as though they were on fire. She had only just touched the canister when Raffin scrambled as far back into the corner as he could in a panic. Toria also froze, half hidden by shadow and burnt wood.

She could hear the cadence of marching--but who was it? Theirs, or the Terran?

It was impossible to tell, and her heart slowly crept into her throat as she waited for them to pass. Raffin--brave Raffin was the first to slip from hiding, creeping low to the ground and--despite his tall, lankiness---remain unseen. He looked at her and mouthed Terran to her.

Toria thought she might actually vomit her heart up.

He was waving for her to come over, they would go in the opposite direction and use what trees, buildings and chunks of erupted rock they could to cover them. it seemed like a simple enough plan, but the stakes were high. She silently thanked the Lord Father for blessing Raffin with the mind to stash these designs in a sealed container that would resist damage. She couldn’t bear the idea of losing these to the Terran military.

She did her best to run with him--and there was something strange about them suddenly running for their lives. Perhaps it was that he came for her, that he seemed to know how to handle situations like this where she faltered. She was no soldier, but Raffin would have been an amazing addition to the Imperial Army, she realized.

It was short lived, that moment of clarity. Toria was simply too injured; there was no stopping to feed and Raffin refused to abandon her. It only took a squad to discover them and capture them. Toria appeared to have something valuable--she went with the better dressed shoulders. Raffin was trouble, struggling and fighting to get to her. She watched them strike him over the head where he dropped unceremoniously. She was shaking, she realized in a daze. Her cheeks were wet and warm--she was crying--uncontrollably sobbing bloody tears.

She was going to die. Surely, she was going to die tonight.

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I refused to let her.

She sat in a small gray room, with a small desk, an uncomfortable chair and the calm gaze of two Terran foreigners. He spoke to her in Terric but she trembled and shrank back into her chair. When he spoke again, it was a harsh, crude variant of Genesar, “You are safe, depending on your cooperation.”

 He leaned back into his own seat and stared at her, “You are an engineer student.”

This was not a question.

“The top of your class, I understand.” Also not a question.

“And you designed this.” Leaning over, he pulled up a carefully rolled blueprint and spread it out. It was her ship design--her best work. Her pride and joy! And he had taken it from her. Toria went to lurch from her seat when the second Terran soldier stepped forward.

“We want this ship. You are going to build it for us.”

“May the Lord Father strike you down!” She yelled--in fear more than defiance. These Terrans and their Gaianism, yet they kill so easily! So effortlessly and take what they think is theirs.

“We have motivation. You would be well cared for, ensure you have the best of our resources, our engineers will be on hand to assist you. Terrenus is moving forward into a golden age of prosperity. Magitech is the future--and this ship is a guiding beacon.”

This man was well dressed, she could see. Perhaps a high ranking official--someone high in the ranks yet not high enough. The other one perhaps served this one? Toria’s mind was racing with bold and stupid ideas.

“I don’t want your resources. You steal from me and expect me to do what you want?”

“And you will,” Came the smooth reply. He was far from ruffled, and that concerned her. People who talked like that had a plan. “Bring him in, Vince.”

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 The sentry snapped to attention and saluted before leaving the room. There was a long stretch of uncomfortable silence that stretched until he returned with a dirty, beaten Raffin in tow--scowling and purple and bloody.

She nearly shot out of her seat but his gaze cut to her and told her not to.

“This boy killed one of my men trying to get to you. That’s a deep-seated loyalty, irregardless of your relationship. I’m not one for senseless killing, however,” As he spoke, the sentry returned his grip on Raffin. Toria could see he was chained by his wrists and his ankles. His jaw was clenched and her gruffly shoved back against the sentry. The Man in Charge pulled out a mechanism she barely recognized but understood its intention when it was pointed to Raffin’s head.

“A life demands a life. His, for my soldier.” Now there was a scuffle and Toria viciously shook her head, Her lungs still burned, her body still ached. They had healed her ribs, but it didn’t stop her pride from being bruised. Now Raffin was going to die, No,” She babbled, shaking her head--feeling the tears well up again, “No, no, no. Just--just stop! Wait! WAIT!” She screamed and stood. She was scared--so scared that the slightest twitch would kill her friend.

“I’ll do it,” She babbled in a panic, “I-I can write a list of everything I’ll need. Just. The ship, for his life.” She ignored his protesting, and Raffin growled in anger--begging her not to do it. The Man In Charge nodded curtly and Raffin was dragged, kicking and screaming. The door slammed shut heavily--though not as heavy as her heart.

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Toria felt dirty. Every day she scrubbed her skin raw to remind herself that she was still alive. Every day she worked for the Terran Government. Every day she worked with their engineers, their technicians, their specialists. They treated her well enough when it suited them.

She couldn’t stand to eat much--enough to get through another work day. Her nights were dreamless and empty. Every week that passed, every month that stretched on felt impossibly empty. She watched friends die from overworking from intensive labor--a war effort, it was said. She saw them get shot and killed for escaping. She saw their mixed emotions towards her--and every day that she saw Raffin, her heart broke a little more.

She missed the simple days when they could laugh and talk. When he teased her over her flowers--her beautiful Irises.  It seemed so silly and childish now to wonder who it was that sent them.

Every day was the same routine. An endless cycle of nothingness that wore down on her soul. At night she would sleep in her bed in her cell, sometimes on the floor. She was allowed to live; to eat and sleep and to have what she needed as a means to an end.

One night, she heard a sound--a sound she wasn’t accustomed to hearing. She slept in the hall alone--no one to speak to, the only interaction she had was overseeing the complicated process of building her airship.

What was that sound? She sat up quietly and listened. A silhouette appeared and softly called to her. She stumbled to her feet and groped for the bars in the dark, Raffin Warne!” She hissed softly. She cupped his cheeks--he was so thin and tired.I’m getting you out of here. Soon.” He whispered.

 She wanted to laugh and cry--or both if she could manage it, “The ship is nearing its final testing stages. They’ll be extra tight on security--they’ll want to know I did my job and did it right.”

“Then stall.”

“How?! How are you even here?”

“Maybe you aren’t as brilliant in application as you are on paper. Maybe I'm the brilliant one here. Give me a couple of weeks and don't ask questions.He gently reminded her, before kissing her forehead and slipping away, disappearing down the hall again. A hand rest on her thunderous heart as she padded silently back to her corner of loneliness.

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What could she possibly do?

That night she didn’t sleep. She could only turn it over in her mind--did he really appear to her? Was she asleep or awake? Was she that desperate for contact with others? If she failed miserably, it would cost her her life. She she didn’t fail enough, it wouldn’t stall long enough for Raffin to enact whatever hairbrained idea he has.

Toria rolled over, sighed deeply, and pretended to sleep while resting her hammering heart.

Flight simulations were a wonder to Toria. Terran technically had slingshot forward so much that she was learning far more than she ever realized. The advantage to learning new technology from a foreign continent was that it allowed her to make simple mistakes that delayed further testing.

This had happened frequently enough that the Terran morale was starting to damper. Had they entrusted this student too much over the past year and a half?

Diagnostics were run. Tests were conducted--and finally, it was time for a maiden flight. Toria had never felt so much trepidation--and the intimidating was equally stifling. Still, the core of her that knew this was the career she wanted in life was also thrilled to see one of her creations successfully take flight. Raffin’s words loitered in the back of her mind, and there was a strange, electric currency in the air--tangible excitement among the crowds.

 

Her academy had taught her that crashes and failures could happen for a myriad of reasons. 

A lot of times, it was pilot error. Perhaps the weather wasn’t agreeable and damaged a part.  A flaw in the design of the material itself (which had actually happened the week before, but thankfully she hadn’t been yelled at). But today, it was the infrastructure and it hurt her deeply to cause it.

“ODIN’S beard, is it my head you want served on a platter? Your own? Shall we both die by the end of it all? Resolve this as quickly and efficiently as possible, or you won’t be sleeping until we’re up to code! We have regulations to maintain you stupid, stupid girl!

Toria flinched--the inspector was inches from her face. There were words--hurtful words--words said out of anxious energy--excitement. It made her dizzy to be yelled at--the idea of losing her life was only just beginning to lose its edge, but the initial shock still punched her in the gut.

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Only when she was alone in her cell did she curl up and dry-sob--there were no more tears left. It wouldn’t work--it couldn’t possibly work! Raffin was a stupid, prideful man with stupid ambitions and he was cruel to give her even the tinest glimmers of hope. There was no way to know how Genesaris fared in the war--nothing not Terran propaganda was allowed. She was their prisoner of war, their ace in the sleeve.

Something about the idea of her designs killing her own country nearly broke her when the sound of scuffling snapped her out of her dark thoughts. Shadows and silhouettes hovered by the door. She heard the distinct crackling of ice, the rattling of chains the snapping of weakened metal breaking. A tall lanky shadow crept in and grabbed her--she nearly screamed in her moment of confusion.

Raffin silenced her and dragged her--and for a hair of a second she felt quite indignant about it. “We don’t have time and they’ll wake up soon.” There it was again, that confident whisper in her ear--like he was born knowing what to do.

The airship hangars were eerily silent. There were dropped bodies all over the ground--whether they were Terran or otherwise, Toria didn’t know and Raffin offered no explanation.

She recognized the outline of her ship and felt her stomach flip. There was so bleeding way they would be able to fly at this rate.

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“We’re not safe until we hit the East.” Raffin warned

“What’s east?” One of them asked

“Umbra is east, you oafish ninny.”

“OI! Watch that name calling, yeah? Freeze ya tits off.”

“Quiet! They won’t be knocked out for long we have got to get out of here?”

“Raffin--the fuel injector system. Take a good hard look at it--you’ll know it when you see it.” Toria suddenly found her voice as her lanky comrade jogged away. She nudged a crumpled body with the tip of her boot before crouching, a hand over the nose and mouth of a soldier. A slow rhythm of air flowed, Sleeping? Magic, or…?”

“Terrans may be moving into an era of magitech but they are still lacking against Genesaris’ old magic. The will of the Lord Father is with us, we Vampyres have not lost our touch.” She was a refined thing, graceful, elegant and flawless--noble, perhaps? It was hard to tell.

“I’m just a Southerner,” The ice man from earlier spoke, frost on his fingertips. Two more had come with them, stolen weapons on hand to ward off anyone who tried to interfere with their escape. Toria had the bay door lowered to let the first two on board while the hangar bay began to open--a glaring alarm sounding to notify  nearby civilians and soldiers to stand clear from the doors while a ship prepared to depart.

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