Graveyard – Arlen Feldman

Graveyard – Arlen Feldman

The crew had already started calling it the graveyard.

If it was a graveyard, it would be hard to choose a bleaker site for it, on a planet pretty much made up of bleak sites. I walked as close as I dared to the edge of the cliff, and looked down over a thousand meters of sharp gray crags spreading out all around under a dark, thunderous sky. I felt the wind tugging at me, and hastily stepped back.

Merrick was watching over the technicians—as though they needed or wanted his help. To be fair, he did know a lot about the scanning equipment.

Not that I wanted to be fair.

I tugged at my breathing mask, trying to make it more comfortable, and turned to examine the site. Thirty-seven upright stones, spread over a clearing about forty meters wide. The shortest stone was 22 centimeters and the tallest was 196 centimeters—almost two meters. From three sides, they just looked like rocks.

It was because of the fourth sides that we were here. They had been carved flat, and a pattern had been deeply etched into each. The designs were different from stone to stone, but they all followed a similar design—a spiral of shapes spreading out from a central point. The shapes were small circles and rounded rectangles of different lengths. It sort-of reminded me of Morse code, except that there were at least eight different lengths. Unless, of course, the “dashes” all meant the same thing, and the carver wasn’t particularly careful about length.


I jumped, then turned around. Sean, the other member of the research team, was standing less than sixty centimeters behind me. Hard to hear with the wind and the masks and the warm-weather gear.

Sean held up his hands. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No worries.” I grinned at him, putting my hand to my chest. “Whatever doesn’t make your heart explode makes you stronger. What’s up?”

“We’re about ready.”

I nodded and followed him over to the “command post”, which was really just a stack of plastic crates with some ruggedized computers sitting on top. Sean typed something on a keyboard and I felt the thrum as power ran to the imaging lasers mounted on collapsible pylons positioned all around the site.

For a while, we watched the progress display on the screen, then I turned and walked back towards the stones. Not much point looking at a picture when the real thing was right there.

“You know,” said Merrick, who had followed me, and was now standing right next to me. “If it is a graveyard, then the inscriptions would make a certain amount of sense.”

I took a half step away from him. “How so?”

“Well, the little one there might be To Aunt Maggie, while that one,” he pointed to the largest stone with two separate swirls of symbols,” might be the Grayon-Alpha-3 equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer or Do Not Go Gentle.”

I laughed, though in truth the idea had already occurred to me. “You know what the Professor would say, don’t you?”

Don’t get ahead of the facts,” we intoned in unison, and laughed.

Professor Kineson should have been here. He was Earth’s foremost xeno-anthropologist, but he was now too old for major journeys. Instead he’d sent his grad students—me and Merrick—arguably Earth’s only other xeno-anthropologists. To date, it wasn’t a very popular or useful field, although Grayon-Alpha-3 might change that.

Life was pretty common on the worlds that had been explored—plants and insectoids being the most common, but larger forms as well. Grayon-Alpha-3 was no different, covered in small ugly plants and a number of beetle-like insectoids that were currently being intensely studied by the biology team.

On two previously explored worlds, we’d found indications of intelligence—remnants of crude settlements—but no actual settlers. Professor Kineson had been the main researcher for both of those.

But writing—that was a first. If the designs on these stones turned out to be a form of language, that would be a game changer. And it had to be writing. How could it be anything else?

“It could be art,” said Merrick, as though reading my mind—a very annoying habit of his. “Like Celtic knotwork.”

I shrugged. Even artwork would be exciting, but in my gut, I knew that it was writing—an attempt to communicate. Not that I would ever admit to anything so unscientific as a gut feeling.

The hum of the scanners shut down at the same time as a lull in the wind, and for a few seconds it was eerily quiet. That might have been the moment when the reality of what we were doing set in. We were standing on an alien world in the presence of unquestionable evidence of intelligence. Even knowing nothing about who or what they were, when and how they lived, I felt an almost physical connection to the creators of these stones.

I looked up to see Merrick staring at me.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing. You just had a look.”

He reached out an arm towards my shoulder, but I took another half-step away.

Sean came up to us, his hand brushing against his breathing mask, as though he wanted to scratch his chin. It was hard to get used to Sean having a visible face. On the trip here, he’d had a huge, ragged, Santa-Claus beard, but he’d had to shave it off so that the breathing mask would fit. Although he was in his forties, he now looked like a teenager. I’d studiously avoided saying anything, although the rest of the crew had teased him mercilessly about it.

“Scan’s done,” he said. “We only have about another hour of daylight. We should probably get back to the lander.”

I nodded, but didn’t move. I was looking at the smallest stone—the one that Merrick had called Aunt Maggie. I’d spent a lot of time in old graveyards, and the smallest, saddest stones were always for babies and children. In my head, I mentally shortened the label to just Maggie.

I turned, grabbed my kit, and followed the others back to the lander.

The next day was all about scanning underground. If these were gravestones, then there should be something underneath them. The Ground Penetrating Radar setup was finicky, and we were all sweating profusely by the time we had it working, despite the cold.

Nothing. There was nothing beneath any of the stones.

“It doesn’t mean they’re not grave markers,” I said, although without much conviction. “They could be cenotaphs—memorials without the bodies.”

No one argued, but I doubted that anyone was convinced.

“There is one weird thing,” said Sean.

Merrick and I both turned to face him.

“The stones look rough-carved, but they each extend at least twenty centimeters below the surface, and the fit is precise. I mean, really precise—within five microns.” He pointed at the display. “I could probably do it with a laser and a bunch of time, but it’s hard to see how you could do it with primitive tools. Also, there would be tool marks, and there aren’t any.”

Merrick shook his head. “If they were an advanced culture with lasers, then there would be some other evidence on the planet. Roads, buildings, something. The satellites have found squat.”

“That depends on how old they are,” said Sean, scratching ineffectually at his breathing mask.

“Maybe they lived underground,” I suggested. “That would explain the lack of anything on the surface.”

Merrick shook his head. “Don’t get ahead of the facts,” he said. “The satellites would have found some evidence of any sort of sophisticated underground settlement. We found the spot where the stones for the monuments came from, which is less than half a kilometer from here, but that’s literally the only non-natural variance on the planet—other than this place.”

I sighed. Without any other sites, we didn’t have a lot to go on. We’d hoped to find something buried beneath the stones that we could use to figure out a date. Then, suddenly, I had an idea.

“You know, there might be a way of figuring out a date—from the stones themselves.”

“The stones are granite,” said Merrick, sounding exasperated. “They are the same age as the surrounding rocks. You can’t get an age off of them separate from that.”

“Thanks for the Geology 101 lecture.” I didn’t bother trying to keep the sarcasm from my voice. I turned to Sean. “Weathering patterns. The stones further away from the cliff are weathered less than those nearer to it. We know how granite breaks down, what chemicals are present in the atmosphere, weather patterns—at least for the few years that the satellites have been in place. We should be able to at least get a rough estimate from that.”

“Clever,” said Merrick, suddenly interested.

Sean stroked at his chin. “Rough is the word.”

“The faces and the designs haven’t really worn down,” said Merrick.

“No,” said Sean, thinking, “but the edges have. We’ll have to analyze some other rocks as well for control, pull atmospheric data from the satellites, but…it could work.” He looked up. “Yeah—at least within a few hundred years.” He grinned at me. “Nice!”

It was four days later, early in the morning, when Sean knocked on the door of my cabin.

“Yeah?” I answered blearily.

He handed me a piece of paper. “Between 700 and 1200 years.”

For several seconds I had no idea what he was saying, and then suddenly neurons started firing in my brain. “You did it? You did it!” I gave him a hug, and he turned bright red. I noticed that he’d started growing a beard again, but that it was carefully trimmed to the shape of a breathing mask.

“This is awesome,” I told him. “It’s the first concrete thing we really know about the site. The post-project report was looking awfully bare.”

Sean suddenly looked nervous. “So, you won’t be reporting anything until the end of the trip?”

“Of course not. That would be…why?”

“Well, it’s just that…”

But I didn’t need to hear it. I already knew.

“Merrick? You told Merrick first?”

“I didn’t…he was in the lab when the computer spat out the results. I couldn’t—”

But I was already halfway down the passage.

My thoughts were on events from a year ago. Me, curled up on the sofa next to Merrick while he read my research notes on the ancient settlement found on Gliese 837c, telling me how great my work was. Late nights, lying next to one-another, endlessly discussing my ideas…

I practically slammed into him coming the other way down the passage.

He oofed, then backed away. “Oops, sorry.” Then he saw my face. “What?” he asked.

I was about ready to hit him. “You bastard.”

His eyebrows went up, but his voice was even, half-joking. “My mother would deny it. I take it you think I did something?”

He was going to brazen it out. I lifted my fist and he took several hasty steps back. Not once did it even occur to me that he hadn’t sent a report behind my back. I could see the look of calculation in his eyes.

“Look, if it’s about the dating—I did let the Professor know, but no one else. And I swear that I told him that the idea was yours.”

“Yeah, like last time? In a frigging footnote?” I’d taken several steps toward him, and he’d backed away again, even though he towered over me by thirty centimeters. His face was red now.

“You think I’d…?”

“Yes, I do.”

Then I turned and walked away. Of course, now I had to send a separate report in, and it would make us look like we were squabbling siblings. Maybe I shouldn’t even bother.

When I got a copy of Merrick’s report a few hours later, it turned out that he had been telling the truth. Professor Kineson had sent us both a congratulatory e-mail about the dating, and had given me credit for the idea, and Merrick and Sean credit for the computer model.

It did not make me feel any better.

A little while later, Merrick came to find me. His expression was half-smirk and half-contrition. I had no idea why I had once found him handsome.

“Jen,” he started. “Listen, I know we have some history, but I did tell you that I gave you credit.”

“And yourself, I note. I’m pretty sure that Sean did most of the work.”

He ignored this.

“Getting our names out there is important. There is interest in what we are doing right now. If we waited until we had every last detail worked out, no one would care. Publish or perish, right?”

“I’d recommend perish in your case,” I said. This was an old argument, though. Part of his excuse for pre-empting my Gliese 837c research was that I had been taking too long to get my results out there. As if that were an excuse for stealing my work.

He turned to walk away, obviously annoyed. At the door, he paused. “If you aren’t going to let people know what we’ve found, then why bother?”

“I want it to be right,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “I want it to be permanent—to last. Not just be some half-baked headline.”

He shook his head. “And if you wait too long, then it’s going to be someone else’s name that’s remembered. Not ours. If we don’t carve out our own names, no one else will. We work in a tiny, under-funded field. If you don’t get your name out there, how many of your projects do you think will get sponsored?”

He walked away. I watched him go, wondering how he and I could have such different ideas about what our work was about. Part of me, though, knew that he was right about sponsorship. I wondered, briefly, whom I was really angry at.

The next two weeks were spent in icy, silent hostility. Most of the crew, who were military, were completely unaware of what was going on, or at least pretended to be. Sean, though, was stuck in the middle, and shuttled back and forth nervously between us.

It helped that my approach and Merrick’s were so different. He spent most of his time with the computer scans and models on the ship, while I spent most of my time at the actual site.

Not that I was getting anywhere. Nor, as far as I knew, was Merrick. I’d caught him watching me a few times. The last time, he’d had that look—the one that I used to read as understanding and admiration, and now read as naked calculation. He was probably hoping I’d let something slip.

I pushed Merrick from my mind as I turned my thoughts back to the graveyard. 700 to 1200 years. It was difficult to believe that a culture with the sophisticated stone-working skills needed to make these monuments would have disappeared without a trace in that time.

My working hypothesis—shared with no one else—was that the monument-makers weren’t native. Someone had visited this planet, like we were now, and, for whatever reason, had left this memorial here. Maybe to commemorate their visit, or because something unfortunate had happened. I smiled to myself. I was getting really far ahead of the facts.

The idea did fit the facts, though. There were no visible tool marks, which was consistent with advanced technology, and there were no indications of any remotely higher lifeforms on this planet than bugs, let alone tool users.

In the past, I might have talked this over with Merrick, but that was obviously impossible. He was good at turning my flights-of-fancy into concrete ideas. Now, though—if he agreed, he’d probably steal my ideas, and if he disagreed, he’d probably use them to discredit me.

I sat down in front of Maggie’s stone on a small stool I’d been using. Part of my reason for focusing on that stone was that I figured the simpler design might be easier to interpret. In theory, the more complex patterns would provide more material to analyze, but the computers were already trying that approach without any notable success.

Another reason was that it was next to one of the larger monuments, which protected me from the continuous howling wind.

To be honest, though, I think I’d just formed some sort of emotional attachment to my mental image of Maggie.

As for figuring out the pattern—I’d tried every statistical and analytic approach I could think of, including some that were desperately random. I still had a neck ache from my attempt to examine the pattern upside down.

My new approach, such as it was, was to stare at the design while letting my mind go blank in the hopes that something would pop into my head. I tapped on my headphones to start them playing. Today I was listening to Dvořák’s New World Symphony, one of my favorites. The slow adagio opening was appropriately grandiose for the austere landscape, and the fast, crashing allegro seemed perfectly timed to the gusting wind.

The second movement, the slow, haunting largo, was what I’d been waiting for, though. The gentle music, led by the sonorous oboes, was music for a graveyard if any music was. The largo movement was also known as Coming Home. I wondered if the creators of the graveyard had made it home.

It was chilly, even with the protective clothing, and I shivered. I rested my gloved hand on top of Maggie’s stone. Wanting a closer connection, I pulled off my glove and touched the stone with my bare hand.

The stone was ice cold and it burned my hand, but I held it there for a moment before pulling it back. Not quite ready to give up my connection to the monument, I put my finger in the very center of the spiral design, and ran it around the design.

I’d done this before with my thick glove on, but without it, I suddenly noticed something. As my finger thunked between the uneven dashes, it made a sort of tune.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up and a chill went down my spine. It had nothing to do with the frigid air.

I tried it again, slower. This time, the tune was more pronounced. Well, less a tune, and more a rhythm, since it was basically the same note repeated with different intervals. Or was it? I ripped off my headphones so I could hear better, and tried again, this time using my little finger. The slight differences in the lengths of the dashes and the gaps in between were changing the pitch—creating different notes. I could just barely hear the differences. Either my ears weren’t sensitive enough or my finger was too big—possibly both.

I pulled out my tablet and brought up the detailed scan of the pattern on Maggie’s stone, then had it convert the heights and depths into a wave form, letting the computer figure out the most appropriate scale. Holding my breath, I hit play.

It was a short, pleasant, uplifting tune. I found myself laughing in amazement. I played it again, with my eyes closed. The sad image of Maggie I’d held for so long was now replaced by a little girl running through fields, a flower in her hand. I rested my hand on top of her stone again, ignoring the burning sensation for as long as I could.

I had to try some of the others. I went over to one of the larger monuments with a bigger pattern. I tried it with my finger first, again just able to make out the rhythm. Then I had my tablet try. This tune was a bit more somber and dignified—a man of business, proud of his position, maybe. The next monument was quicker, almost lilting—a teenager full of life.

I wiped tears away from my eyes. Yes, I was overlaying my own imagery on these simple tunes, and they were human images, which couldn’t be right. But I was being talked to by a people who had been dead a thousand years. And I could hear them.

By this point my fingers had turned bright red and were aching from the cold. I wanted to listen to every one of the thirty-seven monuments, listen to thirty-seven distinct voices, but that would have to wait.

The lander was over a kilometer from the site, but I’m pretty sure I covered the distance in less than five minutes. I spent the next ten hours in my cabin, in front of my computer.

Eventually, though, I had to find Sean to let him know what equipment I was going to need—after swearing him to secrecy. I wasn’t sure he even believed what I’d found.

The last thing I did was send an invitation to everyone on the lander, before collapsing into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When I got to the site the next day, Sean had already set up everything I’d asked for, including a tablet to control it all. His beard had kept growing and now, under the plastic breathing mask, it looked like he was actually wearing a breathing mask made of hair. I grinned at him, and he waved back.

Merrick showed up a little while later, along with several members of the other science teams and the ship’s crew. In general, crew didn’t mix with the science teams, but they were apparently curious. Merrick must have been curious as well, but his expression was blank.

I cleared my throat, suddenly feeling like I was about to give an oral dissertation defense in front of a hostile examination committee. The howling wind was chilling, but I felt sweat trickling down my neck.

“Uh, thank you all for coming. I, uh…”

I seemed to lose all control of my ability to speak. Desperately, I looked around, and saw Sean, standing behind everyone else. He winked at me, and gave me a brief thumbs-up. It helped.

I took a deep breath and started again.

“For the past several weeks, we’ve been trying to figure out what these stones represent, and whether the markings are writing. I now have a solid working hypothesis.”

As if playing for dramatic effect, the wind dropped, leaving us in temporary silence. Most of the faces in front of me were openly interested, perhaps surprised, but Merrick’s eyes were narrowed in a look of frustration so intense that I almost took a step backwards. What could possibly be driving that? Was he that afraid of being beaten to the finish line?

I took another deep breath, and held my ground.

“Each stone represents something—a concept, or, possibly, individual entities. If so, then this site is a graveyard—or at least a memorial. But the patterns are not words about each of these people. They are music.”

I tapped something on my tablet, and Maggie’s tune played out from the speakers Sean had placed around the site. They were highly directional, so the tune came from the location of Maggie’s stone. At the same time, a bright light shone on the spiral pattern, travelling in time with the playback.

Everyone turned to look. It was the same melody from yesterday, but my experimentation with the parameters had improved it—added more depth and nuance. I’d heard the tune dozens of times by now, and it still made me shiver. From the looks on the faces of the others, I was not alone.

After a brief explanation of what I’d found, and how the patterns worked, I had the computer play its interpretation of several other stones—the somber business man. The teenager. A playful tune that made me think of an entertainer. A reserved, powerful tune that I associated with a mayor or a captain.

One of the biologists was laughing with glee. Several people were running fingers over the patterns, although with gloves on, it didn’t work.

“If we can hear it,” said the biologist who’d been laughing, “then that means that the creators had ears as well—heard sounds like we do.”

“Not necessarily,” said Merrick, and the anger was gone as he sank into the problem. “Sound is just vibrations. They might have had very sensitive fingers—digits—something—that interpreted the vibrations.”

“Or antennae or a long sensitive tongue,” I added. “There’s no way to really know.”

Merrick grinned at the image, and just for a second, I grinned back. Then we both looked away.

“Also,” I continued, looking directly at the biologist, “the computer has chosen a pentatonic scale for the notes because it seems to fit, and because it sounds reasonable to us—to humans. That’s fairly arbitrary, although with more research, we might be able to figure out how it was originally supposed to be interpreted.”

The biologist sighed. “It’s beautiful,” she said,” but I still wish you’d found me a body to examine.”

There was general laughter at that.

The tune from the last gravestone had faded away, and for a moment I was a little lost, not quite sure how to get back on the track of my presentation. I was rescued by one of the crewmen, a short man in a blue uniform, whose name I couldn’t remember.

“What about the big one?” he asked, pointing to the large stone in the center of the graveyard.

I smiled at him. “Glad you asked. That one took a while to figure out. You have to do both spirals at the same time.” I hit the icon on my tablet, and a strange rhythmic pulsing started.

The crewman tilted his head to the side, listening. “That doesn’t sound like the others. The others sound, well, sound like people. This is more like a back-beat or something…”

I nodded at him, impressed. It had taken me hours to figure that out. “It makes sense when you do this.”

I hit another icon to run the program I’d spent most of the night on. The computer started up all of the monuments, delaying some, letting others fade in and fade out, then repeating them, little glowing lights spiraling throughout the site.

It was like standing in a busy market square, surrounded by people going about their lives. Children running, vendors hawking their wares, officials strutting around, and beneath it all, the thrum of the center monument adding life and depth to it all.

I let it run for several minutes, before allowing the individual tunes to fade away.

No one moved or spoke. The only sound was the whistling of the wind. I noticed that the crewman who’d asked the questions had tears in his eyes, and after a moment, I realized that I did, too.

Finally, Sean walked over to me, and gave me a one-armed hug.

“It’s beautiful.”

I hugged him back, my lip quivering.

“They’re going to love this back home,” said one of the biologists.

I nodded, and kept my eyes on him, careful not to look towards Merrick. “I sent a report back a few hours ago. I’d normally wait until after we were done, but we only have a few weeks left anyway.”

The biologist nodded back in agreement, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to have done. Perhaps I had been too cautious in the past.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Merrick take a step towards me, stop, and then turn and walk away. At least there wasn’t going to be a big argument in front of everyone. That was a relief.

Two days later I was sitting at the tiny desk in my cabin when there was a knock at my door. It was Merrick. I tilted my head at him and raised an eyebrow.

“I just wanted to say congratulations.”

“Thank you.” I kept my voice toneless.

Merrick took a deep breath and stepped into my cabin. He opened his mouth, closed it, then took another deep breath.

“I wanted to let you know that I sent a note to the college, giving you full credit for your previous work on Gliese 837c, and withdrawing my own name.”

My eyes widened. “You didn’t have to do that.”

He shook his head. “I did. The thing is, with all of our conversations, I’d honestly convinced myself that we’d done that work together, and that you were holding me back by refusing to publish. I realize now…”

He swallowed. “I realize now that my contribution was almost nothing. It was all you, just like it was here. I think I need to find another field.”

I think my mouth fell open. I thought back over the arguments that I’d had with Merrick. His old words twisted into different shapes in my mind, and I could suddenly see them from his perspective. It was true that most of the Gliese work had been mine, but Merrick had contributed quite a bit too. Withdrawing his name would cause a scandal—possibly end his career, or any career based on research. I’m not sure that I would have had the courage to do anything like that. I wondered if all of the strange looks he’d been giving me lately had been because he’d been thinking about doing this.

He turned to go, and I watched him disappear down the hallway.

There was something I’d wanted to do ever since I’d realized about the music. It was a definite no-no, and I could get in a lot of trouble…but on the other hand, courage deserved courage.

I found Merrick in his cabin a few days later. He seemed surprised to see me.

“There’s something I want to show you,” I said.

He shrugged, but stood up.

We picked up our outside gear and cycled out through the airlock. We’d normally turn left to get to the graveyard site, but I turned right and started walking. Merrick seemed slightly surprised, but followed without comment.

We walked on in silence for twenty minutes, while I worked up the courage to speak.

“I’ve been thinking about what you did,” I said, finally. “You were right—it was my research and my ideas, but you helped me flesh them out, and you pushed them into being published. You were right about that too.”

Merrick kept his eyes firmly in front of him, his face a mask. I plowed on.

“I’ve been communicating with the professor. He’s agreed to talk to the committee. The report on Gliese 837c is going to be updated to show both of our names—with mine listed first, of course.”

Merrick’s mouth opened, then closed a few times.

“I…,” he started, then stopped. He gave the shortest of nods.

We walked on in silence. I led him to a spot about three kilometers from the ship, four from the graveyard. There was a small section of cliff that you couldn’t see unless you were standing in the exact right spot, facing the exact right direction.

Merrick had kept his blank emotionless expression intact since I’d told him about the report, but when he saw the cliff face, he burst out laughing.

“When I said we needed to carve our names in the field, this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

There were three parts to the carving I’d made with Sean’s laser rig. At the top was a star chart showing Earth’s location, and another chart that showed the current alignment of all of the planets and moons in this solar system—on the theory that an advanced culture could use it to calculate precisely when we had been there. Below that were our names—Jenna, Sean and Merrick, etched in our alphabet, and below each of the names was a spiral like on the monuments.

“I figure that if another alien species comes along and finds this site as well as the other, it will drive them completely crazy. I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I had to leave some proof that we’d been here.”

Merrick smiled. He tugged off his glove and stepped towards the cliff, then looked back at me for permission. I nodded.

He started with Sean’s spiral. As with the graveyard, only the vaguest rhythm was audible. I handed him my tablet, and he pointed it at the pattern and hit play.

Despite loving music, I was no musician, but the computer had helped me. Sean’s tune was solid, confident, capable. Merrick nodded before moving on to the other patterns. Mine was inquisitive, changing—a little bit sad. I wasn’t quite sure about it, but Sean had sworn that it captured me perfectly.

Merrick’s tune was brash and striving, with a deep under-beat—but uplifting, hopeful. When the computer had first played it, I knew that it fit him exactly, although I couldn’t have explained precisely why. He played it a second time, running his finger over the pattern as it ran.

When he finally spoke, his voice was so quiet I could barely hear him “Is that how you really see me?”

I nodded.

“Well, then, perhaps I’m not a hopeless case after all.”

I smiled. “Don’t get ahead of the facts.”

Your thoughts?

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