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I woke up feeling different. At first, I couldn't quite dope out what it was; then I got it: I was clean, fresh-shaved, sweet-smelling, tucked in between sheets as crisp as new dollar bills. And I felt good; I tingled all over, as if I'd just had a needle shower and a rubdown.

The room I was in was a little low-ceilinged cubbyhole with nothing much in it but the pallet I was lying on. I remembered the arm then, and pulled back a loose yellow sleeve somebody had put on me. Outside of a little swelling and a bright pink scar under a clear plastic patch, it was as good as new.

Something clicked and a little door in the wall slid back. The man named Orfeo stuck his head in.

"Good; you're awake. About time. I'm about to field-strip the Z-guns. You'll watch."

I got up and discovered that my knees didn't wobble anymore. I felt strong enough to run up a wall. And hungry. Just thinking about ham and eggs made my jaws ache. Orfeo tossed me a set of yellow coveralls from a closet back of a sliding panel.

"Try these; I cut them down from Jongo's old cape."

I pulled them on. The cloth was tough and light and smooth as glove silk.

"How are you feeling?" Orfeo was looking me up and down.

"Fine," I said. "How long did I sleep?"

"Ninety-six hours. I doped you up a bit."

I ran a finger over my new scar. "I don't understand about the arm. I remember it as being broken; broken bad—"

"A hunter has to know a little field medicine," he said. "While I was about it, I gave you a good worming and balanced up your body chemistry." He shook his head. "Bloody wonder you could walk, the rot that boiled out of you. Bloody microbe culture. How's your vision?"

I blinked at the wall. If there'd been a fly there, I could have counted his whiskers. "Good," I said. "Better than it's ever been."

"Well, you're no good to me sick," he said, as if he had to apologize.

"Thanks," I said. "For the arm, and the bath and the pretty yellow pajamas, too."

"Don't thank me. The Lady Raire took care of that part."

"You mean . . . the girl?"

"She's the Lady Raire, Jongo! And I'm Sir Orfeo. As for the wash-up and the kit, someone had to do it. You stank to high heaven. Now come along. We've a great deal to cover if you're to be of any use to me on the hunt."







The armory was a small room lined with racks full of guns that weren't like any guns I'd ever seen before. There were handguns, rifles, rocket-throwers, some with short barrels, some with just a bundle of glass rods, some with fancy telescopic sights, one that looked like a flare pistol with a red glass thermometer on the side; and there were a few big elephant guns of Earth manufacture. The whole room glittered like Tiffany's front window. I ran a finger along a stock made of polished purple wood, with fittings that looked like solid gold. "It looks like Mister Desroy goes first class."

"Keep your hands off the weapons until you know how to service them." Sir Orfeo poked buttons and a table tilted up out of the floor and a section of ceiling over it glared up brighter than before. He flipped a switch and the lock-bar on a rack snapped up, and he lifted out a heavy-looking, black-stocked item with a drum magazine and three triggers and a flared shoulder plate, chrome-plated.

"This is a Z-gun," he said. "It's a handy all-round piece, packs 0.8 megaton/seconds of firepower, weight four pounds three ounces." He snapped a switch on the side back and forth a couple of times and handed the gun across to me.

"What's a megaton/second?" I asked him.

"Enough power to vaporize the yacht if it were released at one burst. At full gain the Z-gun will punch a three-millimeter hole through an inch of flint steel at a range of five miles with a five millisecond burst." He went on to tell me a lot more about Z-guns, crater-rifles, infinite repeaters, filament pistols.

At the end of it I didn't know much more about the weapons Lord Desroy would be using on his hunt, but I was feeling sorry for whatever it was he was after.





Sir Orfeo took me back to the little room I'd waked up in, showed me how to work a gadget that delivered a little can of pink oatmeal, steaming hot. I sniffed it; it smelled like seaweed. I tasted it. It was flat and insipid, like papier-mâché.

"Sir Orfeo, I hate to complain about a free gift," I said. "But are you sure this was meant for a man to eat?"

"Jongo wasn't a man."

I kind of goggled at him. "What was he?"

"A Lithian. Very good boy, Jongo. With me for a long time." He glanced around the room. "Damned if it doesn't give me a touch of something-or-other to see you in his kennel."


"Nest, pitch, call it cabin if you like." Sir Orfeo beetled a fine eyebrow at me. "Don't be putting on airs, Billy Danger. I've no patience with it."

He left me there to dine in solitude. Afterward, he gave me a tour of the ship. He was showing me a fancy leather-and-inlay lounge when Lord Desroy came in.

"Ah, there you are, Desroy," Orfeo said in a breezy way. "Just occurred to me you might like to have Jongo—ah, Billy Danger, that is—do a bit of a dust-up here in the lounge—"

"How now? Hast lost thy wits, Orfeo? Hie the mooncalf hence i' the instant!"

"Steady on, Desroy. Just thought I'd ask—"

"I've a whim to chide the varlet for his impertinence!" the big boss barked and took a step toward me. Orfeo pushed me behind him.

"Don't blame the boy. My doing, you know," he said in a nice cool tone.

"Thy role of advocate for this scurvy patch would want credit, an' I stood not witness on't!"

We went on down the stairs. Instead of looking mad, Sir Orfeo was smiling and humming between his teeth. He dropped the smile when he saw me looking at him.

"I advise you to stay out of Lord Desroy's way, Jongo. For now, he's willing to humor me along; I have a carefully nurtured reputation for temperament, you see. If I get upset, the game might turn out to be scarce. But if you ruffle his feathers by being underfoot, he might act hastily."

"He has a strange way of talking," I said. "What kind of accent is that?"

"Eh? Oh, it's a somewhat archaic dialect of English. Been some three hundred years since his lordship last visited Earth. Now, that's enough gossip, Jongo—"

"It's Billy Dan—"

"I'll call you Jongo. Shorter. Now let's get along to Hold F and you can earn your keep by polishing a spot of brightwork in Environmental."

The polishing turned out to be a job of scraping slimy deposits off the valves and piping. Sir Orfeo left me to it while he went back up and joined in whatever they were doing on the other side of the forbidden door.






One day Sir Orfeo showed me a star chart and pointed out the relative locations of Earth, Gar 28, the world we were headed for at the moment, and Zeridajh, far in toward the big gob of stars at the center of the Galaxy.

"We'll never get there," I said. "I read somewhere it takes light a hundred thousand years to cross the Galaxy; Gar 28 must be about ten light-years away; and Zeridajh is thousands!"

He laughed. "The limiting velocity of light is a myth, Jongo," he said. "Like the edge of the world your early sailors were afraid they'd fall over—or the sound barrier you used to worry about. This vessel could reach Zeridajh in eighteen months, if she stretched her legs."

I wanted to ask him why Lord Desroy picked such a distant part of the sky to go hunting in, but I'd learned not to be nosy. Whatever the reasons were, they were somebody's secret.

After my first few weeks away from all time indicators, I began to develop my own internal time-sense, independent of the three-hour cycles that were the Galactic shipboard standard. I could sense when an hour had passed, and looking back, I knew, without knowing how I knew, just about how long I'd been away from Earth. I might have been wrong—there was no way to check—but the sense was very definite, and always consistent.

I had been aboard just under six weeks when Sir Orfeo took me to the personal equipment room one day and fitted me out with thermal boots, leggings, gloves, a fancy pair of binocular sunglasses, breathing apparatus, a backpack, and a temperature suit. He spent an hour fussing over me, getting everything fitted just right. Then he told me to go and tie down in my digs. I did, and for the next hour the yacht shook and shrilled and thumped. When the noise stopped, Sir Orfeo came along and yelled to me to get into my kit and come down to F Hold. When I got there, walking pretty heavy with all the gear I was carrying or had strapped to my back, he was there, checking items off a list.

"A little more juldee next time, Jongo," he snapped at me. "Come along now; I'll want your help in getting the ground-car out shipshape."

It was a powerful-looking vehicle, wide, squatty, with tracks like a small tank, a plastic bubble dome over the top. There was a roomy compartment up front full of leather and inlaid wood and bright work, and a smaller space behind, with two hard seats. Lord Desroy showed up in his Frank Buck bush jacket and jodhpurs and a wide-brimmed hat; the Lady Raire wore her white coverall. Sir Orfeo was dressed in his usual tailored gray with a filament pistol strapped to his hip and a canteen and bush knife on the other side. We all wore temperature suits, which were like long-handled underwear, under the coveralls. "Keep your helmet closed, Jongo," Sir Orfeo told me. "Toxic atmosphere, you know."

He pushed a button and a door opened up in the side of the hold, and I was looking out at a plain of bluish grass. A wave of heat rolled in and the thermostat in my suit clicked, and right away it turned cool against my skin. Sir Orfeo started up and the car lifted a couple of inches from the floor, swung around, and slid out under the open sky of a new world.

For the next five hours I perched on my seat with my mouth open, taking in the sights: the high, blue-black sky, strange trees like overgrown parsley sprigs, the leathery grass that stretched to a horizon that was too far away—and the animals. The things we were after were big crab-armored monstrosities, pale purple and white, with mouths full of needle-pointed teeth and horns all over their faces. Lord Desroy shot two of them, stopping the car and going forward on foot. I guess it took courage, but I didn't see the point in it. Each time, he and Sir Orfeo made a big thing of hacking off one of the horns and taking a lot of pictures and congratulating each other. The Lady Raire just watched from the car. She didn't seem to smile much.

We loaded up and went on to another world then, and Milord shot a thing as big as a diesel locomotive. Sir Orfeo never talked about himself or the other members of the party, or the world they came from, but he explained the details of the hunt to me, gave me pointers on tracking and approaching, told me which gun to use for different kinds of quarry. Not much of it stuck. After the fourth or fifth hunt, it all got a little stale.

"This next world is called Gar 28," Sir Orfeo woke me up to tell me after a long stretch in space. "Doesn't look like much; dry, you know; but there'll be keen hunting. I found this one myself, running through tapes made by a survey team a few hundred years ago. The fellows we'll be going after they called dire-beast. You'll understand why when you see the beggars."

He was right about Gar 28. We started out across a rugged desert of dry-baked pink and tan and yellow clay, fissured and cracked by the sun, with points of purplish rock pushing up here and there, a line of jagged peaks for a horizon. It didn't look like game country to me, but then I wasn't the hunter.

The sun was high in the sky, too bright to look at, a little smaller than the one I was used to. It was cool and comfortable inside the car; it hummed along a couple of feet above the ground, laying a dust trail behind it from the air blast it was riding on. The tracks were for hills that were too steep for the air cushion to climb.

About a mile from the yacht, I looked back; it was just a tiny glint, like a lost needle, among all that desolation.

Up front, on the other side of the glass panel, Lord Desroy and Sir Orfeo and the Lady Raire chatted away in their odd language, and every now and then said something in that strange brand of English they spoke. I could hear them through a speaker hookup in the back of the car. If I'd had something to say, I don't know whether they could have heard it or not.

After two hours' run, we pulled up at the top of a high escarpment. Sir Orfeo opened the hatch, and we all got out. I remembered Sir Orfeo had told me always to stay close with his gun when we were out of the car so I got out one of the crater-rifles and came up behind them in time to see Sir Orfeo point.

"There—by the double peak at the far end of the fault-line!" He snapped his goggles up and whirled to start back and almost slammed into me. A very thin slice of an instant later I was lying on my back with my head swimming, looking into the operating end of his filament pistol.

"Never come up behind me with a weapon in your hand!"

I got up, with my head still whanging from the blow he'd hit me, and followed them to the car, and we went tearing back down the slope the way we'd come.

It was a fast fifteen-minute run out across the flats toward where Sir Orfeo had seen whatever it was he saw. I had my binocular goggles on and was looking hard, but all I saw was the dusty plain and the sharp rock spires, growing taller as we rushed toward them. Then Sir Orfeo swung the car to the left in a wide curve and pulled to a stop behind a low ridge.

"Everybody out!" he snapped, and popped the hatch up and was over the side.

"Don't sit there and brood, Jongo!" He was grinning, excited and happy now. "My crater-rifle; Z-guns for his lordship and Lady Raire!"

I handed the weapons down to him, stock-first, the way he'd told me.

"You'll carry the extra crater and a filament pistol," he said, and moved back up front to go into conference with the others. I strapped on the Z-gun and grabbed the rifle and hopped down just as Sir Orfeo and Lord Desroy started off. The Lady Raire followed about ten feet back, and I took up my post offside to the right about five yards. My job was to keep that relative position to Sir Orfeo, no matter what, until he yelled "Close!" Then I was to move in quick. That was about all I knew about a hunt. That, and don't come up behind Sir Orfeo with a gun.

The sun still seemed to be about where it had been when we started out. There was a little wind blowing from behind, keeping a light cloud of dust rolling along ahead. It seemed to me I'd heard somewhere that you were supposed to sneak up on game from downwind, but that wasn't for me to worry about. All I had to do was maintain my interval. We came to a slight rise of ground. The wind was picking up, driving a thick curtain of dust ahead. For a few seconds I couldn't see anything but that yellow fog swirling all around. I stopped and heard a sound, a deep thoom! thoom! thoom! 

"Close! Damn your eyes, Jongo, close!" Sir Orfeo shouted. I ran toward the sound of his voice, tripped over a rock, and went flat. I could hear Lord Desroy shouting something and the thoom-thoom, louder than before. I scrambled up and ran on forward, and as suddenly as it had blown up, the gale died and the dust rolled away from us. Sir Orfeo was twenty feet off to my left, with Lord Desroy beside him. I changed direction and started toward them, and saw Sir Orfeo make a motion, and Lord Desroy brought his rifle up and I looked where he was aiming and out of the dust cloud a thing came galloping that was right out of a nightmare. It was big—twenty, thirty feet high, running on two legs that seemed to have too many knees. The feet were huge snowshoelike pads, and they rose and fell like something in a slow-motion movie, driving dust from under them in big spurts, and at each stride the ground shook. A second one came charging out of the dust cloud, and it was bigger than the first one. Their hides were a glistening greenish brown, except where they were coated with dust, and there was a sort of cape of ragged skin flapping from the narrow shoulders of one as he ran, and I thought he must be shedding. Thick necks rose from the shoulders, with wide flat heads that were all mouth, like the bucket of a drag-line. And then a third, smaller edition came scampering after the big fellows.

All this happened in maybe a second or two. I had skidded to a halt and was standing there, in a half crouch, literally paralyzed. I couldn't have moved if an express train had been coming straight at me. And these were worse than express trains.

They were about a hundred and fifty yards away when Lord Desroy fired. I heard the Z-gun make a sharp whickering noise and an electric-blue light flashed up and lit the rocks like lightning, and the lead monster broke stride and veered off to the left, running irregularly now. He leaned, losing his balance, but still driving on, his neck whipped back and up and the head flailed offside as he went down, hit, bounced half upright, his legs still pumping, then went into a tumble of flailing legs and neck and the dust closed over him and only then I heard the shuddering boom he made hitting the ground.

And the second one was still coming, closer now than number one had been when he was hit, and the little fellow—a baby, only fifteen feet high—sprinted up alongside him, tilted his head sideways, and snapped at his big brother's side. I saw a flash of white as the hide and muscle tore; then the little one was skidding to a halt on his haunches, his big jaws working hard over the bite he'd gotten, while the one that had supplied the snack came on, looming up as high as a two-story house, black blood streaming down his flank, coming straight at Lord Desroy. I saw the Lady Raire then, just beyond him, right in the path of the charge; and still I couldn't move. Lord Desroy had his gun up again and it flickered and flashed and made its slapping noise and the biped's head, that it had been carrying high on its long neck, drooped and the neck went slack and the head came down and hit the ground and the big haunches, with the big feet still kicking, went up and over high in the air in a somersault and slammed the ground with a smash like two semi's colliding, and flipped up and went over again with one leg swinging out at a crazy angle and the other still pumping, and then it was looping the loop on the ground, kicking up a dust cloud that hid everything beyond it.

"Watch for baby!" Sir Orfeo yelled, and I could barely hear his voice through the thudding and pounding. Then the little one stalked out of the dust, tossing his head to help him swallow down what he had in his mouth. Sir Orfeo brought his gun up and the cub was coming straight at me, and the gun tracked him and went off with a flat crackkk! that kicked a pit the size of a washtub in the rock beside him and the young one changed direction and trotted off and Sir Orfeo let him go.

The dust was blowing away now, except for what number two was still kicking up with one foot that was twitching, still trying to run. Lord Desroy and Sir Orfeo went over to it, and the hunter used his pistol to put it out of its misery. It went slack and a gush of fluid sluiced out of its mouth and it was quiet.

"In sooth, the beast raised a din to make the ground quake," Lord Desroy called in a light-hearted tone. He walked around the creature, and Sir Orfeo went over to the other one, and about then I got my joints unlocked and trotted after him. Sir Orfeo looked up as I came up and gave me a grin.

"I think perhaps you'll make a gun-boy yet, Jongo," he said. "You were a bit slow coming up, but you held steady as a rock during the charge."

And for some reason I felt kind of ashamed of myself, knowing how it had really been.






Lord Desroy spent a quarter of an hour taking movies of the dead animals; then we made the hike back to the car.

"We were lucky, Desroy," Sir Orfeo told him as we settled into our seats. "Takes a bit of doing to knock over a fine brace on the first stalk! I suggest we go back to the yacht now and call it a day—"

"What foolery's this?" Lord Desroy boomed out. "Wi' a foison o' quarry to hand, ye'd skulk back to thy comforts wi'out further sweat or endeavor?"

"No use pushing our luck—"

"Prithee, spare! Ye spoke but now of bull-devil, lurking in the crags yonder—"

"Plenty of time to go after them later." Orfeo was still smiling, but there was an edge to his voice. He didn't like to have anyone argue with him about a hunt.

"A pox on't!" Lord Desroy slammed his fist down on the arm of his chair. "Dost dream I'd loiter in my chambers with game abounding? Drive on, I say, or I'll take the tiller self!"

Sir Orfeo slapped the drive lever in and the engines started up with a howl.

"I was thinking of the Lady Raire," he said. "If you're that dead-set on running us all ragged, very well! Though what the infernal rush is, I'm sure I don't know!"

As usual, the Lady Raire sat by quietly, looking cool and calm and too beautiful to be real. Lord Desroy got out a silver flask and poured out yellow wine for her and himself, then lolled back in his chair and gazed out at the landscape rushing past.

An hour brought us to the foothills of the range that had been visible from the yacht. The going was rougher here; we switched over to tracks for the climb. Lord Orfeo had quit humming to himself and was beginning to frown, as if maybe he was thinking about how nice it would be to be back in his apartment aboard the yacht, having a bath and a nice dinner, instead of being in for another four hours, minimum, in the car.

We came out on a high plateau, and Sir Orfeo pulled the car in under a steep escarpment and opened up and climbed down without a word to anybody. I had his crater-rifle ready for him; I took the other guns and got out and Lord Desroy looked around and said something I didn't catch.

"They're here, right enough," Sir Orfeo answered him, sounding mad. He walked off and Lord Desroy and the girl trailed. I had to scramble up on rough ground to get to my proper position off to Sir Orfeo's right. He was headed into a narrow cut that curved up and away in deep shadow. The sun still seemed to be in the same spot, directly overhead. My suit kept me comfortable enough, but the heat reflecting back from the stone scalded my face.

Sir Orfeo noticed me working my way along up above him and snarled something about where the devil did I think I was going; I didn't try to answer that. I'd gotten myself onto a ledge that ran along twenty feet above the trail, with no way down. I stayed abreast of Sir Orfeo and looked for my chance to rejoin the party.

We kept going this way, nobody talking, the happy look long gone from Lord Desroy's face now, the Lady Raire walking just to his left, Sir Orfeo out in front twenty paces. The trail did a sharp jog to the left, and I had to scramble to catch up; as I did, I saw something move on the rocks up ahead.

Being above the rest of them, I had a view past the next outcropping that hung out over the trail; the movement I saw was just a flicker of something in the shadows, spread but flat on the rock like a giant leech. I felt my heart take a jump and jam itself up in my throat and I tried to yell and choked and tried again:

"Sir Orfeo! Up ahead! On the right!"

He stopped dead, swung his gun around and up, at the same time motioned to the others to halt. Lord Desroy checked for just a moment; then he started on up toward Sir Orfeo. The animal—creature—thing—whatever it was—moved again. Now I could see what looked like an eye near the front, surrounded by a fringe of stiff reddish hairs. I got just the one quick look before I heard the whisper of a Z-gun from below, and the thing jerked back violently and disappeared into black shadow. Down below, Lord Desroy was lowering his gun.

"Well, that tears it!" Sir Orfeo said in a too loud voice. "Nice bit of shooting, Desroy! You failed to keep to your position, fired without my permission, and then succeeded in wounding the beggar! Anything else you'd care to try before we go into that cranny after him?"

"Methinks you skirt insolence, Orfeo," Lord Desroy started.

"Not intentionally, as I'm damned!" Orfeo's face was red; I could see the flush from where I was perched, twenty feet above him. "I'll remind you I'm master of the hunt, I'm responsible for the safety of the party—"

"I'm out of patience wi' cautious counsel!" Lord Desroy roared. "Shall I be merely cheated o' my sport whilst I attend your swoons?"

Sir Orfeo stared to answer that, then caught himself and laughed.

"'Pon my word, you have a way about you, Milord! Now, I suggest we give over this tomfoolery and give a thought to how we're going to get him out of there!" He turned and squinted up toward the place where the thing had disappeared.

"I warrant ye make mockery of me," Lord Desroy growled. He jerked his head in my direction. "Despatch yon natural to draw forth the beast!" Sir Orfeo looked up, too, then back at his boss.

"The boy's new, untrained," he said. "That's a risky bit of business—"

"D'ye aver thy gun-boy lacks spirit, then?"

Sir Orfeo gave me a sharp look. "By no means," he said. "He's steady enough. Jongo!" His voice changed tone. "Press on a few yards, see if you can rout the blighter out."

I didn't move. I just squatted where I was and stared down at him. The next instant, something smashed against the wall beside my head and knocked me sprawling. I came up spitting dust, with my head ringing, and Lord Desroy's second shot crashed close enough to drive stone chips into my cheek.

"Sir Orfeo!" I got the yell out. "He's shooting at me!"

I heard Sir Orfeo shout and I rolled over and looked for a hole to dive into and in that instant saw the wounded leech-thing flow down across the rock, disappear for a second behind a spur, come into view again just above the trail, about thirty feet above Lord Desroy, between him and the Lady Raire. It must have made some sound I couldn't hear; before I could shout, Lord Desroy whirled and brought his gun up and it crackled and vivid shadows winked on the rocks and the animal leaped out and down, broad as a blanket, leathery dark, right into the gun. Lord Desroy stood his ground, firing steadily into the leech-thing until the instant it struck full on him, covering him completely. It gathered itself together and lurched toward the Lady Raire, standing all alone in the trail, sixty feet behind where I was. As it moved, it left a trail of what was left of Lord Desroy.

Sir Orfeo had fired once, while the thing was in the air. He ran toward it, stopped and took aim and fired again. I saw a movement off to the right, up the trail, and a second leech-thing was there, coming up fast behind Sir Orfeo, big as a hippopotamus, wide and flat and with its one eye gleaming green.

I yelled. He didn't look up, just stood where he was, his back to the leech, firing, and firing again. The wounded leech was close to the Lady Raire now, and I saw then that she had no gun, and I remembered that Lord Desroy had taken it and had been carrying it for her. She stood there, facing the thing, while Sir Orfeo poured the fire into it. At each shot, a chunk flew from its back, but it never slowed—and behind Sir Orfeo the other one was closing the gap. Sir Orfeo could have turned his fire on it and saved himself; but he never budged. I realized I was yelling at the top of my lungs, and then I remembered I had a gun, too, slung across my back to free my hands for climbing. I grabbed for it, wasted a second or more fumbling with it, got it around and to my shoulder and aimed and couldn't find the firing stud and had to lower it and look and brought it up again and centered it on the thing only yards from Sir Orfeo's exposed back and squeezed—

The recoil almost knocked me off my feet, not that it was bad, but I wasn't expecting it. I got back on target and fired again, and again; and it kept coming. Six feet from Sir Orfeo the thing reared up, tall as a grizzly, and I got a glimpse of a yellow underside covered with shredding hooks, and I fired into it and then it was dropping down on Sir Orfeo and at the last possible second he moved, but not far enough, and the thing struck him and knocked him rolling, and then he and it lay still. I traversed the gun across to the other beast and saw that it was down, ten feet from Milady Raire, bucking and writhing, coiling back on itself. It flopped up against the side wall and rolled back down, half on its back, and lay still and the echoes of its struggle went racketing away up the ravine. I heard Sir Orfeo make a moaning sound where he lay all bloody and the Lady Raire looked up and her eyes met mine and we looked at each other across the terrible silence.


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