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Chapter Eleven

“We’re trying to be reasonable, here, Ms. Allenby,” Adam Omikado said. “Surely there’s some way we can work this out.”

“Best way to work it out would be for you to get the hell out of my place and get back in your air car,” Eileanóra Allenby told him flatly. “You got nothing I want, and I’ve got nothing you want, and you’d best take my word on that. Believe me, you don’t want what I’ve got for you.”

Omikado’s expression tightened and for just a moment something ugly looked out of his hazel eyes. He started to speak sharply, then made himself stop and draw a deep breath. Sheila Hampton had warned him Allenby—any of the Allenbys, for that matter—was likely to be…unreasonable. He just hadn’t realized how unreasonable until he walked into Whitewater Hollow Outfitters. Just who the hell did this crone think she was to talk to him that way?!

Unfortunately, explaining the reality of their relative positions as frankly as he wanted to was unlikely to accomplish his mission.

“I understand you’re upset, and I don’t blame you,” he said instead. “I wish it was possible to undo what happened. But it isn’t, and it’s been seven T-years. And even though we weren’t actually involved in the incident, I know Tallulah offered Ms. Allenby’s husband a very generous settlement, in addition to the one your own Congress offered him immediately after it occurred.”

“The ‘incident’ you’re talking about was the murder of a member of my family.” If possible, the woman’s voice was even flatter—and much harder—than it had been. “There’s no ‘generous settlement’ going to make up for that. I don’t know what people’re like where you come from, Mr. Omikado, but ’round here, we don’t set money prices on the people we love.”

“I’m not trying to suggest any amount of money could bring Ms. Allenby back. And I’m certainly not trying to dismiss the pain and grief you and every member of her family must have felt. I’m pointing out that my company’s done everything in its power to make whatever compensation can be made for that tragedy, even recognizing that it’s impossible to make full compensation. And, with all due respect, Ms. Allenby, you’re holding Tallulah Corporation responsible for something that was none of its doing. That was a Protection Force missile, not anything fired by Tallulah or any of its employees.”

The eyes of the fair-haired sergeant in the uniform of the Swallow System Protection Force standing behind Omikado rolled ever so slightly.

Way to go, asshole, Sergeant Hamby thought, even as he warned himself to keep his expression under control…at least while a Tallulah executive was anywhere in the vicinity. Your momma ever teach you how to pour piss out of a boot? Just wondering, ’cause it sure doesn’t sound like it. You aren’t doing any of us any damned favors lecturing her like she was too stupid to understand what happened! You’re talking to an Allenby, dumbass. They don’t much cotton to lectures or people who tell ’em what they should be thinking, ’specially when everybody on the damned planet knows what really happened. I’d think even a Solly could figure that out if he tried hard. And if you’ve gotta be too stupid to come in outa the snow, least you could do is to not aim the old biddy my way!

“’Scuse me, but that was your precious high and mighty Mr. Parkman’s air car, wasn’t it?” Eileanóra asked sarcastically, as if she’d been listening to Hamby’s thoughts. “Traipsing around in public airspace with all those damned armed air cars keeping it company, if I recall rightly. Well, last time I looked nobody’d died and made him God! She had every right to use that same airspace, and there wouldn’t’a been any missiles in it if the damned TSE hadn’t insisted he needed all that extra ‘security.’”

She glared at the tall—very tall—dark-haired man in the uniform of Tallulah Security Enterprises standing at Omikado’s right shoulder, who scowled contemptuously back down at her. At just over 198 centimeters, Robert Karlstad was forty centimeters taller than she was, which didn’t seem to faze her at all.

And she had a point, Hamby thought, glancing at his partner, Corporal Leroy Sexton. Sexton had always been more comfortable running Tallulah’s errands than Hamby was, but even the corporal looked like he agreed with Eileanóra on that one. Hamby sure as hell did…and he understood exactly why TSE was even more hated than his own SPF. The Tallulah Corporation effectively owned most of the Swallow System, thanks to its cozy, mutually lucrative relationship with President Rosa Shuman and her administration. Theoretically, Tallulah Security Enterprises, its wholly owned subsidiary, was responsible only for internal security in Tallulah’s facilities. In fact, it operated as Tallulah’s private army, going wherever the hell it pleased and doing whatever the hell it wanted, under cover of a special agreement with the Shuman Administration which gave its personnel what amounted to diplomatic immunity.

It also had a habit of arrogantly demanding special additional security whenever it felt like it, and it had done just that in the case of Alton Parkman’s hunting expedition seven and a half years ago. It was at least remotely possible there’d been a genuine threat to Parkman’s safety—God knew he was about as unpopular in Swallow as a man could get, and Swallowans could be a fractious lot, especially the ones like Eileanóra and her relatives, who lived up in the high hollows. But it was one hell of a lot more likely, in Josh Hamby’s opinion, that Parkman’s ego had been the real reason. Most of Tallulah’s upper echelon management simply had to flaunt their importance at every opportunity. Like the current pain in the ass trying to browbeat a fifty-year-old widow into submission.

“I wasn’t in Swallow when that happened.” Omikado’s tone was that of a man whose patience was wearing thin. “My understanding is that our security people had credible evidence of a threat to Mr. Parkman’s life. I’m sure if they hadn’t, they wouldn’t have requested the additional security. But that doesn’t change my point, Ms. Allenby. Whatever might have been requested, it was the Protection Force that actually deployed those missiles to cover his route.”

Which was true, as far as it went, Hamby reflected, although it overlooked the minor fact that it was a member of Parkman’s personal security detail who’d identified a battered air van returning from a doctor’s house call as a threat and demanded that it be kept clear. That couldn’t absolve the terminally stupid SPF trooper who’d actually launched the shoulder-fired SAM at Sandra Allenby of responsibility, and Hamby had shed no tears when one of the far-flung Allenby Clan caught up with him in a dark alley and squared that particular account. But it never would’ve happened if the Protection Force had been left to its own devices. And the SPF wouldn’t have been there in the first place without Tallulah.

He glanced at Sexton again, and the corporal’s eyes looked as unhappy as his own. Well, he’d never thought Leroy was the sharpest stylus in the box, and he knew damned well the corporal was actively on Tallulah’s payroll, as well as the SPF’s, but even he had a brain that worked occasionally…which was more than Hamby could say for their current charges. Omikado had been in-system for less than a local week, and he obviously hadn’t bothered to learn a solitary damned thing about the locals since he’d gotten there. That was bad enough, but the truth was that Karlstad worried Hamby more at the moment. Omikado was a pissant desk jockey, the kind that just couldn’t believe the rest of the universe wasn’t as impressed with him as he was. He clearly didn’t understand a thing about the woman he was talking to. If he had, he’d’ve been out the door already, given that his balls were so small it would take a microscope to find them.

Karlstad, though…

Hamby didn’t know as much as he wished he did about “Call me Buddy” Karlstad, but he didn’t much like what he did know. The man was ex-Solarian Gendarmerie, and Hamby had seen entirely too many of them working for Tallulah. Most of them had at least figured out they no longer had the Solarian League in their back pocket, but Karlstad looked like one of the ones who still thought he was serving in an intervention battalion, and his expression was ugly as Eileanóra shook her head sharply.

“You don’t seem to understand, Mr. Omikado,” she said then. “I don’t rightly care who actually fired the missile. And I’m not interested in any ‘generous’ compensation to me or to my cousin. For that matter, I’m not much interested in you. But none of that really matters just now, ’cause the bottom line is, I’m gonna do business with whoever I want to do business with, and I don’t want to do business with you.”

You stupid old bitch, Omikado thought venomously. He knew she was actually barely four T-years older than he was, but the weathered face and silvering hair of someone who’d never received prolong looked far older to someone who had. Tallulah could buy and sell you—hell, I could buy and sell you, myself—out of petty cash!

He made himself draw another deep breath and force down his searing anger. It was hard. He loathed uppity neobarbs like Eileanóra Allenby. He’d been born, raised, and educated on Old Terra itself, and dealing with jumped up, ignorant, penniless, squatters on worthless dirt-ball planets who thought they were his equal was the next best thing to intolerable. He was willing to admit, at least intellectually, that that was a weakness. If he expected to advance to upper-echelon management for Tallulah or any other Solarian transstellar, he had to learn to pretend he respected trash like Allenby. That was one of the reasons he’d been sent out here—to learn to do that pretending.

This is all Uncle Levi’s fault, he thought bitterly. Getting me sent out to the armpit of the galaxy as some kind of favor. “Needs seasoning” is it? Him and his damned old boys’ network! And that’s exactly why Hampton picked me for this. I frigging well know it is!

“A simple matter that needs the attention of someone from Management.” That was how Sheila Hampton, Alton Parkman’s chief of staff, had described it. The fact that she and his Uncle Levi had gone to school together clearly had nothing to do with him being selected for it. Of course not!

He glanced around Allenby’s “office,” looking for something to distract himself while he wrestled with his resentful anger. Unfortunately, it only made him even more aware of just how unbelievably arrogant Allenby—like every other citizen of Swallow he’d met—really was. And how little their circumstances merited that attitude of theirs. The office had to be a couple of hundred T-years old, and its exposed overhead beams and the well-worn, hand-hewn wooden planks of the floor weren’t the affectation, the deliberate archaism, they would have been on any civilized planet. They were the best this godforsaken world could do, and she was just the sort of neobarb you’d expect to find in this weatherbeaten, ready-to-collapse-under-its-own-weight hunting lodge, festooned with near-elk antlers and stuffed snow bear heads. Not only that, but it was Whitewater Hollow’s outer, public office. She’d refused even to invite him into her private office…assuming an ignorant, dried up old bitch like her had a private office!

His lip curled as he lowered his eyes from the snarling snow bear trophies, and he felt a fresh stab of anger as his gaze crossed that of the man standing behind Eileanóra Allenby. Murdoch Allenby’s hair was the same chestnut shade as his mother’s, albeit without the silver threaded through hers, and his eyes were the same flinty shade of blue. He was only twenty-eight, but he was very nearly as tall as Karlstad. For that matter, his shoulders were actually broader than the ex-gendarme’s, and it was obvious the two of them had hated one another on sight. In fact, the cold, biting contempt rolling off of the young man seemed to infuriate Karlstad almost as much as his mother’s attitude infuriated Omikado.

“No one is asking you to do business with me, Ms. Allenby,” he said once he was fairly sure he had his temper under control. “But it’s very inconvenient for Tallulah employees who never did a single thing to you or your family. And I hate to point this out, but it’s costing you a lot of money.”

“My business if I don’t want your money,” she said, chin jutting stubbornly.

“But this foolish embargo, this…vendetta of yours, is costing other people, as well, Ms. Allenby,” he pointed out. “Every time you turn down a charter just because it would contain a Tallulah executive or because it might have been put together by our Tourism Division, you deprive your neighbors of the income they’d derive from it. Is that fair to them?”

“Haven’t heard any of ’em complain,” she said shortly, and glanced at the white-haired fellow leaning nonchalantly against the counter behind her visitors. “You hear anybody complaining, Roarke?”

“Not so’s you’d notice, Eileanóra,” he replied calmly, then squirted a jet of tobacco juice into the battered spittoon beside the counter. “’Pears to me they think it’s up to you who you charter out to.”

“You see?” she looked back at Omikado.

“But this is stupid! Can’t you see—” he started, then made himself stop.

He hadn’t thought her eyes could get any colder, but they managed, and he cursed himself for that momentary lapse of control.

But it really is so frigging stupid that I even have to waste time on this, he thought bitterly. Yet it didn’t matter how amply she deserved for him to flay her verbally; what mattered was that it wasn’t helping his case. Hampton had made that clear, too.

Over the last thirty T-years, Whitewater Hollow Outfitters had earned a reputation as the best hunting guides in the Cripple Mountains. Eileanóra and her now-deceased husband Jordan had known the mountains within five hundred kilometers of Whitewater Hollow like the palms of their own hands. By all reports, Murdoch Allenby had inherited that same familiarity, and WHO had been as zealous about protecting the environment as its guides had been about finding the best game for its clients. Despite which, Eileanóra’s decision to sever all ties with Tallulah Travel Interstellar and blacklist anyone directly affiliated with the transstellar had seemed like a minor annoyance—infuriating and insulting, but still minor—at the time.

Unfortunately, it hadn’t been.

Being cut off from the sort of expertise that resulted in record-book trophies had been enough to irritate a huge slice of Tallulah’s management people who fancied themselves as big game hunters. They were accustomed to being deferred to by their inferiors, not slapped in the face by one of those inferiors’ contempt. That would have been bad enough, but the problem had gone well beyond any purely personal outrage, because Swallow’s mountains were highly touted destinations for jaded Solly travellers.

It was bad enough that Eileanóra refused to book any Tallulah Travel Interstellar charters, since Whitewater Hollow commanded the best approaches to Broken Back Mountain, the fifth highest peak on any planet colonized by humanity. Whitewater Hollow Outfitters had a system-wide reputation as the best known and most highly rated source of guides for people who wanted to explore the Cripple Mountains. Indeed, that reputation extended far beyond the Swallow System hyper limit to organizations like Safaris Interstellar, the Solarian League’s preeminent organization for hunters and campers. But her refusal had at least been endurable, since WHO had represented only one source of guides, however towering its reputation. Now, though, more and more other guides and outfitters had begun to follow her example, and it was starting to spread into other areas of tourism, as well.

That was the real danger, Omikado thought. For all its power here in Swallow, Tallulah wasn’t one of the Solarian League’s giants, and TTI’s tourist-driven revenues represented a nice chunk of the corporation’s cash flow. Not enough for its loss to be crippling, by any means, but enough to represent a significant downtick if the current trend lines persisted. Whether she realized it or not, this vindictive old bitch had stumbled onto something that could genuinely hurt Tallulah’s bottom line, especially if all her friends and neighbors decided to jump onto the shuttle with her. It looked more and more like that was exactly what was about to happen, and the home office wasn’t going to be happy with Alton Parkman if it did. And, far more to the point, Alton Parkman wouldn’t be happy with the messenger his chief of staff had sent out to stop it.

“Excuse me. I apologize for my tone,” he muttered…sounding about as apologetic as he actually felt. Then he exhaled sharply and shook his head. “It’s just that it seems so pointless to see you cutting off your own nose to spite your face this way. Especially when it’s affecting more people than just you.”

“Don’t want your apologies any more’n I want your money,” Eileanóra Allenby said bluntly. “What I want is for you to be gone.”

“Well that’s just too bad,” he heard himself say sharply. “I don’t really like being here, to be honest. Unfortunately, until you’re willing to see reason, I’m afraid you’re going to go right on being pestered by people like me.”

“Not if those ‘people like you’ know what’s good for ’em, I won’t,” she said grimly. “And for now, I think you’d best be leaving.”

“Not until you listen to me,” he said. “I know you’re a stubborn woman—God knows you’ve shown that clearly enough—but I can be stubborn, too, and it’s simply foolish for you—”

“Maybe you didn’t hear my mother.” Murdoch Allenby’s tone lowered the ambient temperature by at least fifteen degrees. “She asked you to leave.”

“And I said—”

“’Pears you don’t hear too good,” Allenby cut him off. “And being’s how I’m a tad less polite—and a lot less patient—than she is, I’ll just put it in words even a pissant educated man like yourself can understand. Get your ass the hell outta here.”

“Watch your mouth, boy!” Karlstad barked. “It’s going to get you in a lot of trouble!”

“Now, everybody just calm down,” Hamby jumped in. “Ms. Allenby, Murdoch, I know you’re riled, and maybe you’ve got a right to be. But this whole thing’s getting out of hand. Nobody wants to come in here and pick any fights, but it does seem to me Mr. Omikado’s been as reasonable as he could be in explaining his position.”

“Don’t need it ‘explained,’” Eileanóra said. “Nothing new in a single thing he’s said. I wasn’t interested last time they sent somebody t’ say it, and I’m not interested this time. So it’d be best if he stopped wasting his time and mine.”

“But it wouldn’t be a waste of time, if—” Omikado began.

Will you please just shut the hell up, Hamby thought as loudly as possible in the Old Terran’s direction. I’m trying to do you a favor and get you out of here before it goes any farther south! Anybody with the IQ of a rock would see you’re just pissing her off more, and I’ll be damned if she hasn’t got every right to be pissed off!

“Up to us how we use our time.” Murdoch Allenby’s flat, contemptuous tone cut across Omikado’s higher-pitched voice. “So get your fat ass out that door ’fore I put a boot in it!”

“I warned you about that mouth, you son of a bitch!” Karlstad snarled, and a fist which had somehow acquired a set of knuckledusters came out of his tunic pocket.

These neobarbs obviously needed a lesson, and “Buddy” Karlstad was just the man to provide it. In fact, he’d been looking forward to it. And this prick and his damned mother had been running off at the mouth long enough. If he needed someone to teach him better, Karlstad was happy to oblige. And if his mother wanted a little of the same, he’d oblige her, too!

His fist shot forward, and he bared his teeth in a hungry smile. The one thing he’d hated about leaving the Gendarmerie was the way it had taken him off the street and the neural baton out of his hand. That was what he’d lived for, if he was going to be honest, and he’d never met the neobarb he couldn’t break across one knee. Working “corporate security” paid a hell of a lot better, but now he always had to remember he “represented the firm” when some bastard mouthed off. Only this time was different. He knew that, and his mouth had watered as he read the special authority TSE had been issued in Swallow. This time he could put the son of a bitch down—permanently, if he had to—and walk away clean.

That thought filled him as he anticipated the familiar bone-crunching impact and Allenby’s scream of agony. It was better than—

His eyes widened as his short, vicious punch shot straight past its target. Allenby couldn’t possibly have seen it coming, and he didn’t even seem to move, yet his head wove just far enough to the side. And then his hand snaked up. It gripped Karlstad’s wrist and the hard-driven punch stopped dead. Karlstad had never imagined anyone could just pluck his fist out of the air, and his eyes began to widen in surprise.

Unfortunately, he had a few other surprises coming, because Murdoch Allenby was a Cripple Mountain boy, and Cripple Mountain boys took to knuckle-and-skull fighting like fish to water or Sollies to credits. Murdoch had had his first fight before he was five. His father had seen to it that he’d never lost one, either, and he’d worked the high hollows since he was fourteen. A man built a certain amount of muscle doing that, and ogre wolves and snow bears were hard teachers. A man who went hunting them had best have his wits—and his reflexes—around him if he wanted to come home with the arms and legs he’d had when he left. He didn’t know who this Solly bastard was used to beating down, but he wouldn’t’ve lasted ten minutes in one of the deep hollow gathers. In fact…

Steel-like fingers locked tight, digging in painfully. Then he jerked, and Karlstad stumbled forward, off-balance and astonished by the speed of Allenby’s reactions. And by his strength. The hand on his wrist was like a bear trap, and—

Allenby’s right hand came up in a perfectly timed uppercut that started somewhere around his own belt buckle and ended on Robert Karlstad’s chin. The ex-gendarme’s head snapped back, his eyes glazed, and his knees buckled, but Allenby wasn’t done. He used his grip on the other man’s wrist to spin Karlstad around like a dancing partner, then levered it straight up to bend the other man over sharply, and his heavy boot came off the floor. Its toe caught Karlstad directly in the seat of his pants, and the bodyguard flew forward. He crashed down on his face, flattening his nose on the wooden floorboards, and the knuckledusters bounced off of his right hand and skittered across the floor.

Omikado stared at Allenby in horror, unable to believe even one of these backwater primitives had actually offered physical violence in his presence.

“’Pears I’ve already kicked one ass,” the Swallowan observed flatly, looking back at him with icy contempt. “Am I gonna have to kick ’nother one?”

“Now, just simmer down, Murdoch!” Hamby said. Allenby switched his fiery blue glare to the Protection Force sergeant, and Hamby shook his head quickly. “Not saying you didn’t have the right when the man came out with those knucks! Just saying this whole thing’s getting outta hand, and—”

“What are you talking about?!” Omikado demanded. “Didn’t you just see this thug assault Mr. Karlstad? Arrest him!”

“Now, you hold on a minute, too, Mr. Omikado,” Hamby said in a rather more placating voice. “Looked to me like Mr. Allenby here was protecting himself. Didn’t see any knucks on his hand, anyway.”

Omikado stared at him.

“What the hell does that matter?! We pay your people enough to protect our people from this kind of thing! So arrest him and charge him—now!

Hamby flushed in mingled anger and shame. Anger at Omikado for making it worse when it was his bodyguard who was at fault. And shame because what Omikado had just said was nothing but the truth.

And how the hell do I handle this one? the sergeant wondered bitterly. Because the truth is, Murdoch’s absolutely in the right, but if I say that, all hell’s gonna be out for noon with Tallulah! But we’ve already got one shit storm coming out of the Cripples over Sandra. I try to take in one of their boys just for defending himself on his own property, and hell won’t hold what’ll come down from the hollows! Last thing I need is to go back to the office and

“You fucking bastard!

The words were more than a little indistinct—his face’s impact hadn’t done Karlstad’s lips and teeth any favors and his face was a mask of blood—but the ex-gendarme had rolled onto his side while Hamby and Omikado were talking. Now he came up on one knee, and the hand which had worn the knuckledusters was wrapped around the butt of a pulser.

“I’m gonna—”


Karlstad’s head exploded as the heavy bullet flung him backward and he hit the floor, sliding across it down a sludge of blood and brain matter.

The sound of the shot was like being hit across both ears with the flat of a shovel. Hamby staggered, his eyes going wide as he saw the heavy, old-fashioned automatic pistol in Eileanóra Allenby’s hand. His brain was still trying to catch up when another voice shouted.

“Put it down and—!”


Hamby’s head whipped around just in time to see Leroy Sexton stumble backward, dropping the sidearm he’d yanked from its holster while Omikado was ranting. The corporal’s hands rose to his chest and he looked down, expression incredulous, as he saw the blood. Then he looked back up, his eyes meeting Eileanóra’s pitiless gaze, and sagged to his knees. He stayed there for a moment, eyes locked with hers, then thudded the rest of the way to the floor.

Hamby stared at him, then froze as something very cold and razor-sharp touched his throat.

“Seems to me you’d best keep your hands where I can see ’em, Josh,” Roarke Mullarkey’s conversational tone sounded tinny and faint through the ringing in Hamby’s ears, and the knife in the older man’s hand—the Cripple Mountains guide’s knife, thirty-two centimeters of old-fashioned steel keen enough to slice the wind—rested against Hamby’s windpipe like a lethal feather. “Know you’re a scabby for Tallulah, but I grew up with your daddy. It’d really pain me to cut your throat.”

The sergeant raised both hands slowly, and Mullarkey nodded.

“That’s a good boy,” he said, reaching out and tugging the pulser from the sergeant’s holster. Then he lowered the knife and stepped back. He sheathed the blade one-handed, then ejected the pulser’s magazine and power pack and handed the useless weapon back.

“I can’t believe you’re just going to stand there and—!” Omikado started.

“Mister, I’d shut my mouth, was I you, while you’re still standing.” Mullarkey’s tone was more than a little exasperated. “You’re the one brought this, and I hate to tell you, but even us backwoods folks know to set up security in our own offices. Got every bit of this on record, including all the times you were told to go and didn’t. And I’m pretty sure we got good footage of this idiot of yours bringing out his artillery. As for the other idiot,” he glanced down at Sexton, “he should’a known better’n to be drawing when guns was already out, an’ ever’body knows he wasn’t doin’ it as a law officer.” The old man sent another jet of tobacco juice into the spittoon. “Man plays the scabby fer someone who’s already broke the law at least twicet, he’s gotta take his chances like anybody else. That there was as clear a case of self-defense as I’ve seen in a long time, and whatever they may’a done to the Constitution down Capistrano way, up here ’n the Cripples a man—or a woman’s—still got a right to defend himself, even against a scabby who does something really, really dumb.”

Omikado stared at him in disbelief, his face pale, and the old man shook his head. Then he looked at his employer.

“Eileanóra? You got anything to add?”

“Think you just about summed it up, Roarke,” she said, and Hamby felt a sinking sensation as he realized her pistol was not only still out, it was lined directly up with Omikado’s head…with a tiny trail of propellant smoke still wisping from the barrel. “’Cept there’s also that bit in the Constitution ’bout property rights an’ trespassers an’ how a woman’s got the right to defend her property against ’em, ’specially after she’s already warned ’em they’d best get. Right this minute, I’ve got a real itch to exercise my constitutional freedoms. So I think it’d be a real good idea if the sergeant here escorted Mr. Omikado off the premises. Be a whole lot easier if there aren’t any more bodies to drag out on the porch.”

Her icy gaze flicked sideways to capture Hamby’s eyes.

“That sound reasonable to you, Sergeant?” she asked.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he said, holstering the empty pulser and then being very, very careful to keep his hand nowhere near it.

“Yes, Ma’am. Sounds real reasonable to me.”

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