The corner of a gutted computer chassis caught his skin and ripped a red line down Duo Maxwell’s arm. He grunted and dropped the tangle of metal into a 50-gallon drum with the word STEEL spray-painted on the side. It didn’t fall far; the drum was close to full.
Duo straightened his back and wiped aside the hair that was sticking to his sweaty forehead, his glove leaving behind a black smudge. He examined his wound, which had begun to develop tiny red beads where the skin had been broken. Long way from the heart, he decided, and went back to work.
So far it had been a typical Saturday; he had made his rounds, relieved customers of their unwanted metal refuse, and returned to Scrapland Yard—the affectionate moniker for his rambling half-acre estate in the industrial sector of this particular L2 colony—with the back of his old 6x6 cargo truck filled with enough treasure to keep him busy for the next two weeks. If he didn’t develop lockjaw by then. Now came the labor-intensive task of sorting the metal, a process which would usually occupy him until dark.
He wasn’t alone this afternoon. The voices of a long-dead heavy metal band bellowed from the old precolonial boom box sitting by the fence. Duo had eclectic taste in music, but he always preferred to listen to metal when he was scrapping. Somehow it just felt right.
He bent down and pried the plastic handles off of a battered steel filing cabinet, his braid draping over his shoulder like a thick brown vine. He tossed the plastic into a separate bin, picked up a crowbar, and began to dismantle the cabinet into more manageable pieces. It was hard work, but he liked it. Better than sitting at a computer for hours and writing ciphertext and hash functions, though that held its own sort of left-brained appeal to him. There was just something innately satisfying about getting dirty, working with one’s hands. His tank top was damp with sweat, his jeans ripped and smeared with grease, and his Docs were going to need a little TLC later if he expected to keep them around for another year. He would scrounge up some boot polish and give them a good buffing tonight—maybe strip his guns and clean them, too. Hell, he’d pop in a movie and make a night of it. It was Saturday, after all.
“But I’ll take my time anywhere,” he sang along under his breath, heaving the metal into its appropriate receptacle. “I’m free to speak my miiiind . . . and I’ll take my find anywhere, anywhere I roaaaam—”
Duo didn’t notice that someone had slipped around the side of the house and wandered into the yard. He was usually very aware of his surroundings, bordering on hyper-vigilant depending upon the circumstances, but right now he was relaxed and happy and not all that concerned about being ambushed in broad daylight. Of course, this particular visitor had a long history of flying just under Duo’s finely-tuned radar.
He threw the last chunk of the cabinet into the drum and turned to look for his next victim, mewling along with the guitar solo, when he noticed his guest. He stopped singing and stared. “Heero.”
Heero Yuy raised his hand in greeting, his expression cool and neutral. “Duo.”
He was dressed in nondescript clothes—boots, jeans, tee, jacket—easily forgettable, no bright colors or accessories to distinguish him from any other person on the street. He carried a military-issue duffle over one shoulder. Hair, face, physique still the same. How long had it been? Six, seven months? Duo was suddenly very aware of his pulse; it thudded hard in his temples, his chest.
“Um. Long time no see,” he said, turning his attention to a busted circuit breaker panel. “What brings ya to L2? Business or business?”
Heero walked over and observed Duo’s progress. “Actually,” he said, “this time it’s personal.”
Duo lifted his head so fast his neck popped audibly. “Really? I mean, uh. That’s . . . w-what sorta personal?”
Heero reached into his jacket and pulled out a silvery antistatic bag. He handed it to Duo, who took off his gloves and opened it, giving Heero a questioning look first. What dropped onto his palm was a slim gray block, roughly 4x6 inches, no thicker than a thumb. The casing was scratched and dented, its single label dingy with age and slightly charred at the edges. It was metal, heavy for its size, and something that Duo had not seen in a very long time.
“Holy shit,” he murmured, turning it over delicately. “Heero, where did you get this drive?”
“I dug it out of the rubble of what used to be the Alliance Intelligence Headquarters in Prague. I was wondering if you could extract the data for me.”
Duo gazed long at the old computer component, then at Heero’s flat expression. No less than two dozen questions flew through his mind, but only one found its way to his lips: “Why don’t you do it yourself? You’re the hacker, not me. Or did you forget our baby?”
Their “baby” happened to be a hulking 960-bit nightmare called Deadlock, cryptosystem they developed—quite unintentionally—during the winter of 197. It started out as a game at first; Duo would write an encoded script, little more than a few algorithms crafted with some randomly-placed obfuscations, and Heero would attempt to break into it. It gradually turned into a contest, then a mission, then a fight to the death. By the spring of 198, exhausted and at the utter limits of their capabilities, they finally ended in a stalemate. Heero, unable to brute-force his way any further into the system, and Duo, helpless to do anything more than hold him at bay and madly generate larger keys, had unwittingly given birth to what would become the flagship of ScytheTech Incorporated. Now regarded as one of the most lightweight, complex encryption programs ever devised, Deadlock was in its third version and growing into a handsome young bundle of software.
And none of it would have been possible without Heero’s ruthless hacking abilities.
A grin tugged at the corner of Heero’s mouth; perhaps he too was remembering. “As you are aware, my expertise is in destroying data, not resurrecting it. When it comes to recovery, you’re the best I know.”
Duo felt an unexpected burst of pleasure at his words, and hoped he was keeping a straight face.
“Besides,” Heero went on, “you’re much more knowledgeable about vintage electronics than I am. That relic you’re holding is a—”
“Hard disk, I know. Uses the old platter technology, which means it’s at least fifty years old. The Alliance went solid-state back in the 140s, but reformatted a lot of the disks to serve as firmware instead of secondary storage volumes.” Duo grinned acidly. “But you already know all this.”
“Then you also know how incredibly difficult it is to recover reformatted information from disks, especially ones as old as this prehistoric piece a shit.”
“Then you can appreciate the fact that I’ll prob’ly have to replace the read/write heads, rebuild the actuator, find a compatible interface cable so I can mount it to my system, and in the rare event that the disk itself hasn’t been scratched or burned or been exposed to an EM pulse, then just maybe—”
“I understand the difficulty involved,” Heero said, stepping closer. “I understand that it’s going to take time and there’s a good chance it may all be for nothing. But I’m asking you to try, Duo. Please.”
Oh God, the magic word. Duo scowled, realizing that he’d been manipulated from the beginning—and worse, it didn’t even bother him. Not with sincerity like that.
He handed the drive back to Heero. “I’ll see what I can do. It’ll prob’ly take me a few days just to get it to a workin state again, and there’s no guarantee I’ll even be able to get anything offa it—”
“I know. That’s why I was planning on staying with you until you can make a diagnosis.” Heero must have seen the shadow that fell over Duo’s face, because his next words were: “Don’t worry, I’ll stay out of your way.”
Duo put his hands on his hips and studied his boots silently. To say that he looked displeased was a massive understatement.
“Listen,” Heero said lowly, “this drive likely contains some incriminating data on several high-profile OZ operatives, and I’m not going to let it out of my sight. I’m fairly certain that no one knows I have it, but there is always a possibility of error. That’s something I must take into account and be prepared to deal with. I trust you completely, Duo—but I don’t want any collateral damage.”
Duo raised his head to stare at Heero, his mouth drawn in a thin, tight line. There was no pretense to be seen in Heero’s dark blue eyes. Collateral damage. Nice way of telling someone you cared about their safety. But what else could he expect? This was Heero Yuy, master of tact, politic to his dying breath. His words were a little softer, but still as blunt as an anvil.
“There’s a futon in the spare bedroom,” said Duo, putting his gloves back on. “Make yourself at home. I’ll be in once I get this panel stripped.”
Heero nodded, slipped the drive back into its polyethylene bag, and left Duo to finish his task.
The interior of the Maxwell residence was like stepping into the womb of an android. It was almost completely dark, lit only by ambient LEDs or special non-ionizing CFL bulbs, and unusually clean. Most of that could be attributed to the special air filtration and conditioning units, which reduced particulate matter and kept the house a steady 18 degrees centigrade year-round—an optimal temperature for electronics. The furniture was sparse and modern, all black and glass and chrome. There was clutter, naturally, but it was organized; wires neatly bundled and labeled, pirated movies arranged by title, manuals and magazines sorted by topic and stacked by date, monitors free from fingerprints, all peripherals pristine and within reach of the main work station.
Heero had been impressed, going so far as to compliment Duo on his domestic stewardship when he finally came indoors.
“Well,” muttered Duo, untying his boots in the kitchen, “guess livin with you taught me a few bad habits.”
Then he had shouldered past Heero and disappeared down the hallway. A few moments later the shower turned on, and Heero resumed his examination of Duo’s network setup.
Meanwhile, under a spray of hot water, Duo clenched his teeth and shampooed his hair and tried not to think about the beautiful, complicated piece of humanoid weaponry with whom he was going to share quarters for the next several days. Already he felt his resolve slipping away, exposing a core that was weak and needy and detestably pliant. There was no way he was going to be able to stand his ground. Sooner or later Heero was going to hack through his defenses, rip out his heart, cauterize the wound, and disappear again. That was how it happened the last time, the time before that, and the time before that. Not this time. Duo couldn’t handle another attack—mentally or emotionally.
Echoes of his conversation with Quatre back on L1-D106 passed through his mind like mile-markers on a long road trip. He knew what he had to do, but he didn’t know if he had the courage yet. This visit was completely unexpected. He hadn’t thought about Heero in weeks—okay, maybe days—but he certainly wasn’t ready to give him an ultimatum. He would just have to ask Heero to leave, take that stupid hard drive and come back some other time, he was just too busy and under a lot of stress right now and . . . and he would be lying.
“Dammit,” Duo muttered, closing his eyes. Water pattered onto his head and rolled down his face in steady streams. There was no way out of this. He was trapped, cornered by the bane of his existence—and the love of his life.
Well, Maxwell, he thought sardonically, you’ve got lying beat.Maybe it’s time to add running and hiding to that list, too.
Heero was studying a window frame when Duo reappeared, dressed in clean jeans and a shirt, his damp hair hanging freely down his back. He plopped down on the couch and began to pull on his socks.
“You were very thorough,” said Heero, running his finger along the heavy-duty weather stripping where a barely-visible wire was attached.
“About the security or the drafts?”
“Both. I imagine this place uses quite a lot of power.”
“Well, the solar convertors help cut the bill a lot. I had them installed last year. Good investment, too—I’ve even got them hooked up to the E-GENs for secondary backup if the power supplies go. Haven’t had to use either yet, but better safe than sorry.”
Heero turned to look at Duo and went still for a moment, gazing at him. A strange expression passed across his face like a cloud’s shadow over sunny ground—cool, fleeting, but definitely an indication of something large overhead. “Yes,” he said finally. “Peace of mind is priceless.”
“Hey, that would make a good slogan. I’ve been lookin for one, y’know.”
“Hm. I heard ScytheTech is doing well,” said Heero haltingly, putting his hands in his pockets. “Congratulations. Out of all of us, I’d say you turned out to be the most successful.”
Duo shook his head. “You’re forgetting Mr Winner, millionaire playboy with a heart of gold.”
“Quatre’s a success in his own right, but he inherited his position. You’re entirely self-made. That’s admirable.”
Duo stared in silence for a few moments. Then he clasped his hands together and dropped his gaze to the floor. “Look. I dunno what you’re tryin to pull here, but it’s obviously takin a lotta effort and you have my permission to stop.”
“Don’t play dumb, Heero. You’ve done nothin but flatter me ever since you showed up. ‘You’re the best at this’ and ‘you’re a success at that’. Complimenting me on my damn housekeeping—this isn’t you, Heero. You’re not this nice. What gives?”
Heero’s eyebrows drew down to form an even steeper V. “What if I really am this nice and you’re shooting me down before I get a chance to show it?”
“Oh, please,” Duo laughed. “Since when has being nice ever mattered to you? You don’t care about being sensitive or polite or other people’s feelings—it’s just window dressing to you. All you care about is the big picture, the final product. The ends are more important than the means.”
Heero took his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m glad to see you still know so much about me, especially since we haven’t spent any great length of time together in nearly a year. Please, continue. I’m interested to hear what other things matter to me.”
Duo blinked. Sarcasm? From the lips of Heero Yuy? Impossible. An understanding of sarcasm meant an appreciation of irony and humor and exaggeration—all combined with the correct amount of wit and implemented in a timely fashion. Where had Heero learned this?
“Look,” said Heero, his tone softer as he uncrossed his arms, “I didn’t come here to argue with you. I just want the information on this drive. You’ll be compensated—I’ll even pay for my room and board if you want—and if you’d prefer me to stay in my room the whole time I’m here, I’ll do it. But I don’t want to fight anymore, Duo. I just want your help.”
Something large and heavy was beginning to form in Duo’s throat. He swallowed it down and blinked a few times. “On one condition,” he said, holding up his finger. “You don’t have to pay rent or anything, but . . . I wanna know what it is you’re lookin for.”
Heero’s face went slack. “Why?”
“Because,” said Duo slowly, “anything that important to you is somethin I wanna see.”
There was a moment’s silence, then Heero nodded. “Alright.”
Duo let out the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. “Okay. Well . . . when can I start?”
It was a lot easier than he had anticipated—Heero staying with him, that is, not necessarily the disk recovery, although that wasn’t going too badly, either. True to his word, Heero stayed out of Duo’s way and allowed him to work at his own pace, deliver progress reports as he felt necessary, and remained a quiet, tidy, unobtrusive guest. He took it upon himself to make the coffee in the morning, do the dishes, and tend to his own laundry. He even brought home take-out one evening, Duo’s choice. He was a model roommate.
It was baffling. Either Heero was working very hard to be patient and accommodating, or sometime in the last year he had learned to override some of his original programming and loosen up a little. Like all things that revolved around the former Wing pilot, it was difficult for Duo to discern what was genuine and what was merely a well-crafted mask. At least they weren’t fighting. That had to be a record—five days together and not so much as a raised voice or smug comment. And no close encounters of the physical kind. It was almost like they were actual friends, old war buddies without a painful history of miscommunication and dysfunctional interactions.
Duo thought a lot about these new developments, listening to electronic body music while he sat at his workbench in the garage and rebuilt the actuator on the drive. Maybe there was still a chance they could work things out, salvage the good parts of their relationship and scrap the twisted, rusty, ugly stuff that had become obsolete. Maybe they could build something again, the two of them, using the rescued pieces as a framework for something better, something sturdy and healthy. It was nice to fantasize about.
Stardust and rainbows, he thought to himself, smiling. Sometimes you just had to make room for it.
Heero, sitting at the kitchen table and drinking his coffee, looked up from his laptop. “Completely?”
Duo let out a yawn and dropped himself into the adjacent chair. He was still dressed in his pajamas—flannel pants and a t-shirt from a popular tropical restaurant on Earth—which was at least some indication that he had formally gone to bed last night. Or earlier this morning. His braid was a fuzzy, fraying rope.
“Well, technically,” he amended. “In a physical sense, it’s ready to go. I put the new heads on last night, so now all we need to do is plug it in and see if it works.”
“I sense a ‘but’ coming up.”
Duo smirked. “But I don’t have a serial cable compatible for a drive that old. Good news is, I know where I can get one. If Kilroy doesn’t have one in stock, he can order one for you.”
“Buddy a mine. Runs an electronics shop across town. His real name’s Ken, but he’s a big Styx fan. Y’know. Domo arigato, Mister Roboto.”
Heero’s eyebrows went up, but otherwise his expression remained neutral.
Duo waved his hand dismissively. “Never mind. It’s an old song. You prob’ly wouldn’t—”
“Do you have it?”
“The song? Well . . . yyyeah, I’ve got the whole album on my radio PC. Kilroy calls up and requests it every time I DJ live.”
“I’d like to hear it sometime. Find out who this Roboto-san is.”
Duo sat back in his chair and watched Heero sip his coffee as if he hadn’t said anything out of the ordinary—but he had. Astoundingly, immeasurably out of the ordinary. Heero’s interest in music as a whole was negligible at best, and he probably couldn’t name three musicians from the pre-globalization period. Why he suddenly wanted—or at least claimed to want—to hear some crusty old song that wasn’t even really that great, not like Bohemian Rhapsody or Don’t Stop Believing, almost made Duo wonder where the real Heero Yuy was and who was this guy sitting in his kitchen.
However . . .
Out of some vague, muddy intuition stirring in the core of his heart, Duo felt that he should keep his mouth shut and let it ride. If this was a new development in Heero, he didn’t want to scare it away with speculation and criticism. So he put on a grin—a slightly nervous one—and nodded.
“Sure. Whenever you want.”
“How about when we get back from Kilroy’s?”
Duo looked surprised. “You’re comin with me? Who’ll watch little Disky while we’re gone?”
“I’ve been here long enough to complete a thorough inspection of the premises; I’m satisfied with your security system.” Heero’s face twitched as if something compassionate were trying to break through and the appropriate expression was having trouble manifesting itself. “Besides, you haven’t left the house in three days. You look like you could use a recess.”
“That ugly, huh?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know, but . . .” Duo trailed off uncertainly, then grinned and stood up. “Never mind. Lemme get dressed and run a brush through my hair, then we’ll go. Sound like a plan?”
Heero lifted his cup. “Ninmu ryoukai.”
If any of this had felt surreal to Duo, being out in public had firmly grounded him in the real world, assuring him that, no, this wasn’t a dream, he and Heero really were walking shoulder-to-shoulder through the busy streets, talking about computers and guns and theoretical espionage and occupational hazards with one another as if it were the easiest, most natural thing in the world. Once upon a time it had been nearly impossible for them to communicate verbally; at one point they had mutually agreed to stop trying, but their attempts to rely solely on carnal correspondence availed them nothing. If anything, it had made a bad situation even worse. They had tried to reestablish connections several times since then, but the results were uncomfortable experiences that, in hindsight, hardly seemed worth the effort. It became apparent to both of them that they might be better off just burning all the bridges between them and moving on, but so far no torches had been dropped. Why Heero kept coming back—and why Duo kept hoping he would—was a mystery that eluded them both.
But Duo wasn’t going to allow himself to dwell on that now, or even try to figure out why. It hadn’t helped him in the past, and it probably wouldn’t help him now. Besides, how much did it really matter? Did he have to completely understand everything in the universe in order to enjoy it? No. Even if he didn’t know jack shit about aerodynamics or gravitational potential energy or escape velocity, it wouldn’t stop him from experiencing that euphoric rush of victory every time he launched into space. The moment was still just as real to him, regardless of the science and mathematics behind it.
And right now Heero was here, talking to him, even smiling every now and then, and it was wonderful to be alive. Duo was satisfied enough to leave it at that.
Maybe he should have tried this a long time ago.
“How’s it goin’, Kilroy?”
A scruffy, bespectacled man in his 30s rose up from behind the counter, grinning widely. “Yo, Maxwell! Just the guy I wanted to see!”
“Oh yeah?” Duo planted an elbow on the counter. “Whatcha got? Another vintage gaming platform? You know I stay away from those things for a reason, man. They’re addictive.”
“It’s not a game system this time. Gimme a sec, I’ll show you.”
Heero, meanwhile, was appraising the interior of the shop, taking in the shelves and tables and boxes and cases jam-packed with components of every sort of electronic device that had ever been manufactured. He was currently fixated on a handheld personal video camera that looked like it had been modified to include infrared, thermal and night imaging filters. He looked at the price tag and very carefully set it down. Outside the shop a steady flow of cars, bicycles and pedestrians streamed by, filling the air with the sounds and smells of a thriving, bustling society.
Kilroy emerged from the back room carrying a flat, rounded square of plastic in his hands.
Duo’s eyes widened. “Oh my God it can’t be.”
“It is,” said Kilroy proudly, holding it up. “One precolonial Sony Discman, my friend. A little scratched on the outside and the skip track button doesn’t work, but it’s in excellent condition and a steal for 350. I’ll even throw in a free compact disc.”
Duo buried his face in his hands. “You’re killin me, Roy.”
“Hey, you said you were interested in one.”
“Yeah, but 350, with a broken skip button? Come on. This should be 250, 300 at the most . . . Would I get a choice in the CD?”
“Polka Hits Volume 2 or Best of Hank Williams.”
“Senior or Junior?”
Duo shook his head. “Sorry, pal, no dice. Maybe next time.”
“Okayyy,” Kilroy drawled, “but I don’t get portable CD players in every day, you know. It could be years before—”
“Yeah yeah, years, I getcha. Listen, I’m needin an SAS connector for an old hard drive; male, 32-pin, version 4 or 5 preferably. Ya got anything like that in stock?”
“Hm, you lookin for a whole cable or just the head?” asked Kilroy, stashing the Discman safely behind the counter.
“Whole cable. The less I have to Franken-rig this thing, the better.”
Kilroy made a strained face. “All I’ve got right now are Serial ATA cables. Now, if you were tryin to boot a SATA drive over a Scuzzy connection, that’d be one thing ‘cause they’re backwards compatible, but the other way around . . . good luck, Chuck.”
“Yeah, I know.” Duo raked a hand through his bangs. “How long would it take to order a connector?”
“Couple weeks. Why, you needin somethin today?”
“Eh, kinda, but if that’s the best you can do—”
“Hold on,” said Heero, approaching the counter. “You said you have SCSI heads?”
“Yeah,” said Kilroy uncertainly, leaning on the counter. “I mean, theoretically you could use a wire stripper to splice a Scuzzy head onto a SATA cable, and do reverse serial tunneling. It’s gonna be slow as hell, but it should get ya by until the order—”
A deafening bang sounded outside the store, followed by the screeching of tires, an explosion, shattering glass, and screams of terror.
Within the first half-second of the disturbance, Heero had thrown his arm around Duo’s shoulders and they both hit the floor, Heero curling himself around Duo’s body in a flesh-and-blood shield.
Beneath him, Duo looked up with wide eyes. “What the fuck was that?”
Heero crawled up without answering, pulled a Beretta M9 from his jacket, and began to maneuver his way to the door, staying low and covered: classic military tactical procedure. Kilroy peeked cautiously over the edge of the counter, looking hilariously similar to the “Kilroy Was Here” sign hanging on the wall directly behind him. Duo reached down and drew his 1911 from the holster on his ankle, and joined Heero on the opposite side of the door. They looked at each other, formulated a plan of action, and agreed. All without saying a word.
Heero went out the door first; Duo peered around the corner in case he had to lay down suppressive fire, then followed.
Out on the sidewalk the general mood had gone from one of shock and confusion to one of nervous relief. A quick analysis revealed that the threat—if there had even really been one—was gone; Heero slipped his gun back into his jacket and approached the scene of the incident. A small crowd was gathered around a transport truck that had beached itself on the sidewalk. The vehicle had apparently blown a tire, veered into the right-of-way, crashed into a lamp post, and busted its windshield. The driver appeared fine—if thoroughly embarrassed.
Duo arrived at Heero’s side, studied the scene for a moment, and began to laugh. “Holy Mary, I just had five years of my life scared outta me, and for a goddamn tire!” He feigned a swoon and put a hand on Heero’s shoulder to steady himself. “I swear, there’s never a dull moment around here. Next thing ya know there’s gonna be fire trucks and. . . Heero? You okay?”
Heero was standing motionless on the sidewalk, staring at the truck’s deflated tire with blank, fixed eyes, and trembling as if he had just plunged into freezing water. Duo could feel the tremors through his jacket. They came in 3-second waves, rising and falling. Heero had never shaken like this before.
“Hey, hey,” said Duo gently, tucking his pistol into his jeans and pulling Heero away from the crowd. “Everything’s under control. Breathe. It’ll pass.”
“I know. I’m fine.”
“Yeah, right. You’re white as a sheet.” Duo reached down and grasped Heero’s hands. “And you’re ice-cold. C’mon, let’s get outta here. The stupid connector can wait.”
“No. I’m okay. I just . . . I need a minute. You go get what you need. I’ll wait out here.”
“Go, damn it! I don’t”—Heero lowered his voice—“I don’t want you to see me like this.”
Duo looked like a kicked puppy.
Heero closed his eyes. “Please. Please, Duo.”
“. . . Okay. Don’t move. I’ll be back in two seconds, then we’ll go. Okay?”
Heero nodded mutely. Duo dashed back into Kilroy’s as if he were on fire.
The people on the sidewalk, having lost interest in the commotion that had been so startling a few minutes ago, slowly melted by ones and twos back into the current of their daily lives. Heero watched them disperse, chatting with one another over new subjects, leaving the wreckage behind in both distance and memory. Maybe they would mention it over dinner that evening, a few words of the day’s epitaph, or at work tomorrow, if they remembered. These were the people who had lived through decades of political upheaval, had endured years of terrorism, assassinations, bombings, destruction, violence and enough mechanized weaponry to power the engines of their nightmares for the next hundred years. These were the people who had moved on. These were the survivors.
And Heero, for one brief moment, envied them with every fiber of his being.
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