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Trennt watched from the spartan back seat as his driver ran an adjusting hand over the crackling radio monitor. He then checked his own obsolete, mechanical wristwatch. The hands showed 3:50 glowing in silent, lime urgency on its dim face. Dawn was too near, safe haven too far off. Trennt looked again to the darkened radio, wondering himself what was wrong with the thing. Northern lights were a continual and understandable signal interference these days. But the month-end clear window still had another twenty-four hours before it closed. The night sky was obligingly clear and reception should be good. Yet, it wasn't so. The driver gave his receiver another rap of knuckles, then wrote it off.

"No more friendly voices guiding this ride," he offered soberly. Glancing from radio to horizon, he appraised his rider. "And a hijacker's moon due up, to boot."

But if the wheelman expected any show of nerves from this particular passenger, he'd be sorely disappointed. That part of Trennt had dried up long ago, making him so effective at what he did today.

Trennt was a prized member of the government's twenty-first-century express relay system. His job was assuring the personal transport and delivery of priority communiqués between Midwestern pickup and drop-off points. It was a vocation he handled with total unquestioning professionalism and personal indifference to the cargo he carried.

The work had taken Trennt across great stretches of Midwestern desert and through crowded city ruins. He'd escorted cargo midday to midnight, horseback to hotfoot; through a latter-day Pony Express gauntlet filled with primitive dangers, both backwoods and open highway.

Understandably, a courier's life didn't boast of longevity. The stable's mules mostly did it for the common macho-jock reasons of tech village status and perks. And the cheap thrill of pressing their luck and daring to yank the devil's tail.

Reasonable precautions were afforded their ranks in issues of shirtweight body armor, scrip money, and medicinal goodie packs. But anything more was strictly self-provided. It was a job for the fearless and foolhardy. Or for those like Trennt, who simply needed the penance.

He'd done well, having started in the bowels of Chicago as a black market runner for Fat Manny, the local neighborhood boss. During his two-year apprenticeship, Trennt had proven his mettle regularly, hauling premium canned goods and bootlegged medicines in a car much like this.

Two wounds and no hijacks brought a notoriety that eventually ushered Trennt into the big league transports of "most favored" status. And here he thrived.

Gravy runs were done in daylight and sometimes under escort. But tough, demanding ones like this were what he craved. For unchaperoned travel after dark meant covert goods and rewards worth very big risks to the daring opposition. Any solo car with wheels and gas was priceless in itself, not to mention the black market value of whatever illicit freight it happened to carry.

As expected, competing forces of random bushwhackers and organized crime felt the challenge worthy enough to subsidize their own fleets of midnight cruisers. And they loosed them to roam the old blacktop in search of just such booty.

Tonight Trent was tired. Having personally escorted this particular cargo pouch the full six hundred miles from its South Dakota origin was his biggest run ever. Thankfully, the base leg from Milwaukee to her atrophied twin sister, Chicago, had been uneventful and chauffeured, and the courier thought to allow himself the luxury of a cigarette.

He studied the driver's ancient, grime-shiny Greenbay Packers windbreaker.

"Okay to light a smoke?"

The man spoke over a shoulder. "Sure. But keep it real low. The auto-dim system on my night specs ain't working right."


Trennt dipped his head and drew a quick hit off the harsh, hothouse tobacco. He knew to keep the smoke cupped. Night drives were done in total darkness and blackout specs a delicate commodity. The quick flare of a nearby match might be enough to burn out an older, ailing pair, the mere glowing tip of a cigarette, enough to damage hard-to-replace circuitry.

Trennt tossed the remaining pack ahead to the car's dashboard in good will. The driver nodded and glanced back amiably.

"Thanks, man. I'll save 'em for later. Coming into some crowded overpasses on the homestretch. Need to keep my eyes open, ya know. How 'bout you? Long trip?"

"The longest," answered Trennt.

"I know it's not smart to ask, but . . ."

Trennt finished the all-too-familiar question, "But what's in the bag?" He glanced at the dark, battered pouch. "Never really sure myself. Coming from NASA's Dakota recovery site, I'd guess some kind of high-altitude data."

"But that's just low-priority stuff, ain't it?" The driver sounded disappointed.

Although he'd wondered, himself, Trennt gave his stock answer. "This must be different."


Both knew to end the shop talk there.

Trennt took another ragged puff off his smoke and, with a mechanic's appreciation, scouted the car's dim instrument panel. Tach, oil, boost, and amp gauges all rode at contented midrange readings.

He hadn't really seen much of the car's exterior at the Milwaukee relay station, but he'd guess her to be an old '06 Chevy Impala. Stripped of reflective trim and dolled up in high-tech options, ancient sedans like it were the last production-bred heavies reliable enough to meet the challenge.

Whatever family had once tooled to soccer games and shopping malls in this old sled would sure be surprised by it now. Its current occupants rode sandwiched between window glass of impact resistant acrylic sheeting and a body layered with the plastic mesh of armorlite fragproofing.

The interior was gutted and reworked with a low-riding, back-seat cargo sump. The trunk held a self-healing fuel cell and everything was set atop priceless solid core tires—hard as a rock, but never a flat.

The old civilian colors were long gone from this night pony, replaced with the modern wonder of stealth antiradar paint. Equally sophisticated bad guys still might find you up close with their own night specs. But they'd never see you on a green screen. In the midst of total social ruin, science marched proudly on.

Trennt popped a side window and rested an elbow on its edge. A flood of warm air rushed in. Above, distant worlds softly twinkled their lover's light. It might have been any other sultry night in any other year. Only the sluggish drone of a billion fatted locusts, singing lazily after their day's pillage, would forever set it apart.

Trennt remembered happier late night rides of bygone years: coming home from Dena's folks in Los Angeles, kids tucked away in the back seat. Her, asleep and cuddled against him, up front. Bright stars and empty interstate, just like now. He moved a hand toward her image but touched only sterile sheet metal and pop rivets in the darkness.

She had seen the truth, right from the start. No fooling that woman with threats of terrorist missles or warlording anti-Christs. She'd known better than to believe in some grand, flaming extinction for mankind. God worked in subtle and poetic ways, she'd advised. And the medium of His glorious, life-giving sun proved just fine.

Trennt was too far removed from either science or religion to really understand the genesis of it all; something to do with a freakish outbreak of sunspots was all he knew. Whatever, it was enough to put the screws to humanity, big time.

He puffed his rough smoke, remembering the first days of this mess. Winters got glacial and long. Summers molten and short. Weather jumped track everywhere, disrupting growing seasons, creating mutant crop blights, defiant insect strains, and the steady decline of mainline food harvests.

Four seasons of major crop failures had seriously drained worldwide grain reserves. Led by dollar-bloated desert oil countries and Asian manufacturing giants, a struggle for control of the world's grain-producing regions mounted.

Offshore investors each hoped to create their own farms on foreign soil. But great stretches of Canadian ground had succumbed to drought. South American bottom land sank hopelessly beneath the constant flooding of a perpetual El Niño. So, the ragged American turf caught in between became the big prize in a worldwide tug-of-war.

Hundreds of thousands of American acres were simultaneously claimed by Middle Eastern, Oriental, and European deed holders. The Breadbasket of the World became their weakened hostage, paying out corn, wheat, and soy ransoms from its own diminished output to a frenzy of foreign foreclosures.

With the calling in of a century's notes, a financial panic also ensued. The dollar collapsed. Toppling headlong into a black hole of bankruptcy, it dragged world finance and trade with it. Global industry and commerce locked up. Civilization ran aground in a worldwide famine and depression that now approached its ninth year.

The situation had leveled off somewhat, giving scientists hope for an eventual "solar recovery" and likely return to a normal existence. But it didn't much matter to Trennt. His life was long over.

He took another hit from his smoke and spied the first fingers of dawn prying under the black eastern sky. A familiar scent was growing in the mucky breeze. Chi-town. He'd recognize that cheesy puke smell anywhere. Home. Like hell.

"Heads up!"

On the car's dash, a tiny red LED flickered. Their scanner had picked up another mobile electrical source. Still distant, but by the increasing pulse, closing fast.

Trennt squinted about. The surrounding highway loomed empty and still. A couple of junk cars lay sprawled across the median. A broken-backed semi and some other trash with them. Then, up left, bingo.

Tucked neatly in the crotch of an approaching overpass sat another car. Two murky figures shone dimly inside and the muggy air carried a heavy whiff of its rich, idling exhaust. The night was about to get interesting.

Trennt's driver yanked on the floor shift. He dropped back a gear and broke the rear wheels loose with the power surge. The tachometer peaked out as they blew passed the now rolling interceptor.

"Too easy," he muttered over a shoulder. "It's a good bet they've got someone else, waiting ahead. You hang on to your cargo and hug the floor. If it looks bad, I'll try to slow down some place soft, so you can bail out."

Trennt knew the routine. Elbows in, chin down, tuck and roll. He'd done it a few times and didn't like it. Still, he got into the preliminary crouch, tightened his shirtweight armor against friction burns, and braced a foot low on the door in preparation.

Their second opponent cruised a half mile beyond. It was a faster wagon, already rolling at intercept speed. And merging from their right were two more bandits. The robbers had planned their ambush well. There was no crossing the garbage-strewn median strip anywhere near here. No way off I-294 for several more miles.

From his hiding place, Trennt heard the other cars bracket them. He felt their testing fender bumps and his own driver's NASCAR-like taps in return. A satisfying crunch vibrated and Trennt heard one opponent fishtail away on crying tires.

"Hang on!"

His wheelman cut a hard arc away from the second pirate, adding a squirt of nitrous oxide to the engine. The Chevy chirped its tires and leapt ahead of its pursuer. But at that same critical moment, the car's interior exploded in a grating halogen brilliance. Hot, white, and loaded with candlepower, the cruel radiance instantly bleached away all color and shape.

The opposition had hoped to blow out their night goggles with a spotlight overload and force them into an easy collar. Set low in the car, Trennt's own battle damage amounted to only a faint, red afterimage that quickly dissolved with a few blinks. But the driver wasn't as lucky.

"Dammit!" he bellowed. "The light got through my specs. Grab the wheel, man. Quick!"

Trennt sprang from his crouch and lunged halfway over the seat back. He grabbed the steering wheel as the driver leaned aside, ripping off his night goggles and jamming clenched fists to his scalded eyes. The man's throttle foot instinctively stayed mashed to the floor though and Trennt was left guiding a runaway missile from an impossible angle.

"I can't keep on like this," he gasped. "Can you take her back?"

The driver held spread hands before his dim, anguished face.

"No, way! My eyes're on fire! Crawl on over!"

He scooted aside, but still kept his throttle foot jammed as Trennt plunged over the seat's rock-hard bulletproofing. Quickly settling in, Trennt familiarized himself with things.

"Okay! I've got her. Give me your specs."

Trennt one-handed the electronic glasses about his head and jabbed the temple reset button. But as he dreaded, nothing happened.

"No good," he snapped, peeling them back off. "They're fried. If this rig has headlights, we've got to use them."

The driver spoke through gritted teeth. "Low right, by your knee."

With a single toggle flip, the dead night erupted to a brazen, polished steel glare. Trennt hunkered behind the steering wheel in a squinty grimace.

"Might as well add a siren!"

"Shouldn't be too far from the I-55 cloverleaf," encouraged the huffing driver. "Concrete's too bad to chance holding a car anymore. But we can take the far side embankment up. Just keep heading south. You'll see the overpass."

The blinded man licked his lips and drew a pained breath.

"By your seat," he added. "Taped to the runners; a starburst grenade. Tear it off and pass it over. If they get too close, yell out and I'll give 'em one back."

Trennt felt low in the blackness. There, by his left ankle, was a beer-can shape. He yanked the device free and milked its safety spoon, eager himself for a quick payback. But the bandit car had fallen off, satisfied to merely tag along—or to keep herding them ahead.

Trennt saw the blockade with only seconds to spare. A half dozen more cars sat parked and ready. Their crews, all armed with 1000-watt light guns, patiently awaited his arrival.

The dim glint of all those shot-ready chrome reflectors stole Trennt's breath. No way could he dodge a barrage of that magnitude. But, he also wondered, were the bandits really intent on blinding him and chancing a high-speed wreck that might ruin both car and cargo? Or was it just part of some grand diversion?

The forty-foot-wide median strip was weedier here than other places they'd passed, yet strangely unbarred and inviting. Then Trennt spied slivers of black quicksilver wavering through its concealing growth.

Natural or engineered, the median was simply a bog. And the bad guys just out for an easy collar. Let the driver try a stupid dash across and trap himself. Then bust his head, grab the loot, and call it a night. The old caveman and mammoth routine. Hardly original, yet well proven.

But one thing Trennt had cultured early in his lost California home was a knack for off-road driving. He called to his blinded chauffeur.

"Can this thing mud?"


"Yeah, run the bogs."

"How deep?"

"Don't know yet. But I wouldn't say we have much choice."

"Try it. Drop her down a gear when we hit. Keep the tach riding high."

The driver yanked the safety pin from his light grenade and clamped hard on its spoon. With his other hand, he reached over and took hold of the nitrous oxide knob between them.

"I can still run the joy juice. Say when!"

Trennt aimed the old beast for a straight shot through the dividing strip and gave it open rein. It hurled itself across like a champ, not even touching ground until halfway through the mire. Boring the rest aside like a high speed snowplow, it mounted the opposing concrete mud drenched, but hardly winded.


Back on solid ground, Trennt's passenger let the starburst grenade roll out his window. A split second later the night sky lit to a brilliant false dawn.

The ploy worked. Their own teams blinded, only a couple of the parked cars were able to start after them. But the tone darkened as the first weapons barked in the Chevy's wake. Bullets slapped its rear flanks, thunking hollowly into the fuel bladder. Tire hits vibrated and jerked the steering wheel.

The loose weave of interior frag netting popped and whined as it trapped and smothered more wild slugs. Even so, occasional bullet slivers did get through. Whizzing about the passenger compartment like mad hornets, one ricocheted off the dashboard and bit Trennt's thigh. The chase drew its first blood.

Trennt angrily yanked open the car's exhaust cutoff and pegged the gas pedal. His Chevy squatted low and keen, easily outpacing the hounds.

"Should be coming up on the Central Avenue overpass," said the sidelined driver. His voice was suddenly sluggish and oddly braced.

Trennt checked his flanks and rear. The on-ramps were indeed too crumbled and dangerous to risk. But the night pony had all the heart it took for hill climbing. The rest didn't matter.

He doused the headlights, pumped his unlit brakes, and slowed enough to tackle a crumbly slope face. The tranny clicked back to low and was joined by a couple notches of parking brake to balance the rear wheels' grip. A nice, even sip of nitrous oxide coaxed more torque from the old V-8 and the car lugged on, heavy but confident.

Once over the crest, Trennt left his car and rider to creep back and watch the highway below. Through the quarter light they came. Full bore and bent on revenge. Their own headlights now brazenly lit, they roared beneath, shaking the weary overpass with their harsh, blatting exhaust. Four, five, six—that's right, boys. Keep on going. All the way downtown.

Trennt rolled to his side and drew a deep relaxing breath. About him, shapes were condensing from the thinning night. Here was the somber gray outline of another trashed suburb. Marked by a half-fallen water tower still carrying the weather-beaten township name of Berwyn-Stickney, it was the carbon copy of so many other outlying Chicago spots: littered with stripped and torched cars, paved with buckled, pockmarked streets. The area's huge and abandoned sanitation plant loomed as a silent, hulking derelict in the murky distance.

Ironically, the desolate landscape also sat dotted with cheery strips of fluorescent rag—fresh surveyor stakes, marking off more of mid-America for razing. Sometime soon, lame duck President Warrington's army of farm contractors would commence grinding this wasteland into another fortressed brick-dust farm, vying for any extra measure of grain to channel into the sorry regional harvest.

Trennt started back for the idling car.

"Well," he asked the napping driver, "where to from here?"

With no answer, he called again.


Still there was no reply. Then he inhaled the sweet-sour pungency of blood and adrenaline—that old familiar battlefield scent of the badly wounded. Trennt quickened his pace and found the man half conscious, glazed in a chocolate-syruplike sheen of heavy venous blood. Regardless of cargo priority, Trennt owed him some tending.

He carefully nosed the tired Chevy through the weedy rubble of old Pershing Road, past gutted Georgian houses, through ghost neighborhoods where kids once played hopscotch and street football, where housewives had gossiped and soap operas played. Now all that was a memory, skinned out by salvagers and torched by crazies. America's essence had become a home for bats.

In a makeshift lair, Trennt turned off the car and carefully rolled the driver to his side. A golden BB had gotten through the frag netting. It had managed a path up through a tiny gap in the man's armor vest, to where the shoulder parted for movement, past his armpit and into a lung. He was still alive, but not much more.

Trennt dug out his own medical goodie bag. He cleared a spot for it on the car's dash, amid the scattered clutter of good luck mojos, wild-haired troll dolls, holy medals, and assorted charms—none of which had offered their owner enough protection tonight.

He sprinkled out his pills, sweeping fingers through the cellophaned variety of hunger and thirst depressants, energy tabs, and vitamins; searching for those priceless blood thickening gel caps. Someone had wisely devised a liquid medium to contain the powerful coagulant, figuring rightly that an injured person might have problems contending with anything more.

Trennt raised the wounded man's head and punctured a pair of capsules. He gently squeezed their dark syrup between the driver's parched lips.

"Swallow this," he encouraged. "It's for the bleeding."

The weakened driver nodded slightly and slowly worked his tongue about the thick liquid. Setting the man's head back, Trennt offered a promising smile.

"Good. Take a couple minutes' rest to let that stuff bind you up. Then we're out of here."

But Trennt climbed out from the car, himself unconvinced. His shoulders ached and eyes burned. He set a probing finger to the slash in his pant leg. No serious blood from the bullet graze, but it was dirty and seeping, could probably stand some stitches.

He'd been hurt worse in the course of his work. This stuff was all minor. Though, suddenly, nothing seemed minor anymore. A power deep inside Trennt was calling it quits. Urging him to cash in his chips and give up this silly-assed cowboys-and-Indians life for the bullet he might finally be worthy of. He silently gazed skyward. Dena, have I paid enough?

A low moan oozed from the car.

No. It was time to get real. He had a wounded man and priority cargo in tow—charges beyond just himself. Trennt leaned against the car's warm fender and looked to the brightening east. He drew a slow breath and listened. Through the heavy dank air he heard the sound of their returning engines. The bad guys would know where he was now and they wouldn't be forgiving.

Trennt fished about his shirt pocket. Out came a pear-shaped lump of crinkled black foil—his own lucky piece. Inside sat an old hunk of rock candy—Mother's little helper. He twirled the nugget speculatively between his fingers.

From kitchen labs all over greater Chicagoland came simmering stews of low-grade amphetamines. Alcohol was too expensive for the modern despairing masses; religion, unbelievable and abandoned.

But synthetic bulk chemicals had long since become a cheap, state-funded substitute. And the crock pots of a million orphaned grandmothers, forever empty of prime meat cuts, now held new and much more enterprising personal recipes. Conscientious product served up with the same loving care as ancient Sunday roasts.

Trennt had never subscribed to the chemical confederacy. Too many zombies out there already. And he didn't deserve the raw edge of his memories being falsely dulled. But Mama Loo, the resident chemist of his old neighborhood, had coaxed him into carrying a single tab as a sort of combination lucky piece and emergency mind fuel.

For more runs than Trennt could remember, that same tab had ridden quietly forgotten in his pocket. Wonderful Mama herself was long gone, another victim of the deadly ozone inversions which fell unannounced over the sluggish downtown area. But her spirit lived on in this tiny piece of cottage chemistry. And to that memory, Trennt now surrendered.

He reverently peeled off the old foil. The pearly rock inside was gummy with age, melted by sweat and re-formed in that same battered wrap a hundred times without ever seeing the light of day. It might not even carry a punch anymore. Still, Trennt raised it in salute, then slipped its metallic bitterness under his tongue and began the wait.

In a couple of minutes he felt the change. His exhaustion flaked off and fresh juices of optimism soared up inside like sweet springwater. Thank you, Mama.

Okay. The bad guys would have them zeroed before long, set for a last-ditch try at his car and cargo. Sunrise was working against him. But, there was also a satellite farm due south of here, just a few miles cross-country. Several thousand acres Trennt recalled from the times he'd worked the ration trucks as a "Common Displaced" person.

He knew sector farms had their own police forces—and electric minefields surrounding. The good guys wouldn't know he was coming. If they misunderstood his charge into their defensive perimeter, he could expect even less mercy than from the mobsters. But waiting here longer only gave the hijackers their own private hunting preserve.

"Okay, sis," Trennt encouraged the idling night pony. "One, the hard way."

The gas pedal went flat and the Chevy burst in the open. Squirting twin rooster tails of orange brick dust high into the clammy dawn air, it vaulted the ruined crown of Pershing Road like a hot black missile. And as expected, a half dozen pursuit cars bored in, snapping at its flanks.

The prairie was hard going. All potholes, stumps, and weeds. The floorboards banged. Trennt's teeth chattered. His hands looked transparent on the gyrating steering wheel and, across the car, his silent passenger rattled with a brutal palsy.

Still, he forced more gas to the thundering pony. Cresting 100 miles per hour over terrain that would have tested the best dirt bikes, Trennt's 3800-pound car blitzed like a rocket—wide open, on the deck, and below radar.

The bandits were now tired of all the effort they'd invested in their quarry and wanted a quick end. Bullets again peppered Trennt's fenders and roof. They stitched trails across the resistant window glass and punched into his doors.

But ahead, his distant target also appeared. A teasing green mirage that rose and sank in the thick dawn air. A dusty emerald crowned in flickering pearls of stainless razor wire, it cycled in and out of a heat-soaked pulse that seemed to mock his efforts to reach.

Then, it burst upon him. The farm's minefield materialized so abruptly that Trennt barely swung away in time. He glanced longingly beyond, through the deadly twinkling coils of heaped barrier wire and broad irrigation moat, to the safety of the farm's thick-packed rampart walls.

Inside, they'd heard him coming. From behind a line of automatic weapons, a cluster of armed men appeared. Atop an earthen parapet, they curiously watched him approach.

Trennt veered hard and raced parallel to the deadly earthwork, hoping to show his plight without forcing a test of their hospitality. But the farm cops were slow at taking the hint and the bandits were not about to give up. Still closing in, enemy gunfire came thicker with each new second.

Hundreds of yards flashed by without any sign of invitation from the farm. It was down to crunch time. Trennt's gas gauge now tickled empty and no other evasion was possible. Desperation fueled a reckless plan.

He'd make his own entrance. A low spot in the glinting lacework showed itself. A gate. At this speed, it'd be the weakest link. But he was at the wrong angle to channel his full momentum into piercing it. He'd have to loop back and gain speed—right through the snapping hounds.

They momentarily gave way to his surprising charge, though quickly recovered, dousing the Chevy in even more concentrated gunfire.

A determined bandit car cut in from the right. Trennt countered with a quick tap of his brakes and hard right turn. His opponent spun off through the dirt, tail first.

A second tried forcing him over from the left. Trennt reversed his first maneuver, easily twirling the car amidships and away to his rear. With all their high-tech engineering, newer graphite-composite autos just didn't have the spunk to go one-on-one with an old hunk of Dee-troit iron. A strange and heady euphoria grew from Trennt's mix of adrenaline and meth cocktail. All the danger was almost becoming fun.

Then above the engine roar and popping weapons, friendly fire announced itself. The slow, throaty clap of armor-piercing slugs came arcing in from the farm's fifty-cal. The good guys finally understood and were trying to cover his escape.

Hoping they had also turned off the mines, Trennt cut back hard for the barrier wire. But his swing went wide in the soft loam and the Chevy slid outside its tight umbrella of supporting fire. He felt the vehicle buck and nose with hits from his own people. Through the dusty swirl of his dashboard, he saw the oil gauge bolt, tremble, and plummet. A quick gush of rank steam licked over the windshield. One of the big farm rounds had split the night pony's engine.

"Not now," he pleaded. But the Chevy's hurt was too big to cure with a wish. She was fast going lame.

Trennt managed to straighten his broad, shearing turn and throttled hard, back toward the farm. His engine now groaned with slapping pistons and dry, hammering valves. Beneath the hood a speeding tick sprouted, quickly growing to a chorus of screaming metal.

The car barreled across the deactivated minefield. It springboarded off the thick dirt ramp and launched with a rolling CRUMP! Connecting rods and scalded oil blew from the engine compartment as the auto spiked the gate dead center, exploding the barrier in a spray of shocked glitter. Coils of lethal razor wire sang invisibly by, clawing both roof and floorboards a time each in passing.

Trennt felt a momentary nothingness under his wheels; the brief peace of a quick heavenly passage. Dena and the kids filled his windshield. Then the Chevy impacted, plowing itself a watery grave in the deep muck of the farm's irrigation moat.


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