ASH: ASH #123 - City of Night Part 4: The Midnight Oil

Dave Van Domelen dvandom at
Wed Aug 29 11:09:46 PDT 2018

     [The cover is an homage to the stapler-taking scene in the
      movie Office Space, with Solar Max having his stapler (which
      is mostly red but has his orange and yellow insignia on it as
      well) taken away by a shadowy silhouette with an insincere
      grin standing out white against the blackness.]

 '|`  /|(`| |   City of Night Part 4 of 6: The Midnight Oil
     /-|.)|-|        copyright 2018 by Dave Van Domelen

                       ACADEMY OF SUPER-HEROES ROLL CALL

CODENAME       REAL NAME                POWERS                   ASSIGNMENT
--------       ---------                ------                   ----------
Solar Max      Jonathan Zachary         Spacetime Control        AMERICA
                 "JakZak" Taylor
Meteor         Sarah Grant-Taylor       Superspeed               AMERICA
Poniente       Esmeralda Colina         Wind Mage                AMERICA
Scorch         Scott Handleman          Pyrokinetic              CANADA
Centurion      Salvatore Napier         Strength, Regeneration   MEXICO
Fury           Arin Kelsey              Concussion Blasts        MEXICO
Contact        Aaron Zander             Psi, Mind-over-Body      DIPLOMATIC
Breaker        Christina Li             Telekinesis              DIPLOMATIC
Essay          Sara Ana Henderson       Gadgeteer                VENUS
Peregryn       Howard Henderson Jr.     Elemental Mage           VENUS
Beacon         George Sylvester         Living Light             VENUS
Geode          Unknown                  Living Crystal           VENUS
Lightfoot      Tom Dodson               Velocity Control         TRANSIT

[January 15, 2027 - Eurasian Union Regional Assembly, Prague]

     The normally untalkative Oni was, oddly, the one to break the silence
following Solar Max's suggestion that they use the Multiversal Office as a
pathway into Berlin.
     "You weren't there, Hotspur.  We were just guarding the door."
     That broke the tension, and while no one actually laughed or even
snickered, there was a palpable sense that most people wanted to.
     "Are you sure that's safe?" Gerhard Hesse, the STRAFE representative,
asked.  "I've seen some of the paperwork generated by the new Combine Office
of Alternative Personhood [see Time Capsules #13 - Ed.], but they've only
been working on this for a few months.  An awful lot of our most useful
people to send into Berlin might still have some classification issues."
     Solar Max nodded.  "As much as I'd love to send in Beacon or even Geode
for a mission like this, their status may not be regularized enough to last
long in the Office."  Left unsaid was the fact that Geode's status was far
more complicated than just being an "alternative person" made of crystal.  By
birth she was a citizen of the Muslim Coalition, assumed dead during the
World Serpent affair [in ASH #50 - Ed.], which meant that she could get filed
under "dead" by the Office as well.  And trying to clear up that mess would
cause a diplomatic fecal-nado with the MC.  "We want at least one speedster
who can scout around Berlin while the rest of us might he having to hold a
beachhead, Meteor is the safer bet between her and Lightfoot," he nodded to
his wife.  "Arc, I'm guessing you want to be on the team?"
     Claire Auger nodded.  "My speed is not of the 'scouting around' variety,
but based on reading the information you supplied after your last encounter
with the office, the occasional burst may be useful inside the Office.  I
believe Oni should accompany us physically.  The computers in the Office may
not have registered as true computers as far as Netwalker was concerned, but
they may still use electricity, and Oni is sensitive to the ebb and flow of
current even when not acting as an electric ghost."
     Oni seemed uncomfortable with the idea, but said nothing.
     "I'll want a decent-sized team at this end in case things go completely
pear-shaped and darkness demons come pouring out the door," Solar Max added,
"and that should also include a few veterans of the Office to make a second
attempt if we never come out.  Scorch, Centurion, get
rearguard.  Lightfoot's on his way from Venus and can join you.  Poniente, I
want you along for the mystic angle."
     Arc turned to her side of the table, "Hotspur and Rechtigkeit will join
them.  You both have...checkered...pasts that might cause problems in the
Office.  Things that the Ministry of Other Intelligences wouldn't be able to
smooth over."
     The two grumbled, but acquiesced.
     "There should be more than one mage," Terrastar pointed out.  "Assuming
that the Office will admit me to the EU branch, I doubt there'd be any issues
surrounding my...paperwork."  
     Arc was the first to reply, "Non.  I'm more concerned that your status
as a royal heir on your Earth would give you too much power in the Office,
and the EU is not willing to grant you access to our section of the
Multiversal Office."
     "Perhaps I might be a compromise candidate, then, since I doubt Mr. Tang
is experienced enough at this stage in his career?" Sadi Pasteur
interjected.  "Oh, you don't trust me any more than you trust Ms. Hectrix,
I'll grant that.  But neither do I have much raw power in my own right.
Given time I could probably subvert aspects of the Office, naturally, but I
could not do it with the casual ease you suspect Terrastar could manage.  And
while I admit Khadam's own situation regarding 'alternative persons' is a bit
unsettled at the moment, I am barely removed from baseline humanity.  My
talent is in observing and organizing."
     Peregryn, from his enchanted tablet computer propped up on the table,
added, "As much as I know any representative of Glyph's has ulterior motives,
I agree that Monsieur Pasteur would be an asset in this situation.  Poniente
is skilled and perceptive enough to recognize it if he attempts any ritual or
symbolic magic, be honest...we may well need someone inside Berlin
who can..."
     "Think like a villain?" Sadi smirked.  "Indeed.  Helping my patron run
a city of 'villainy,'" he looked like he was about to make air-quotes but
only barely restrained himself, "has been one of my duties.  If Lady Sable's
plans for Berlin require any sort of participation on the part of the
citizens, I will recognize the clues quite quickly."
     "And if there's going to be an untested potential weak link on the
team," Daniel Tang narrowed his eyes and looked at Pasteur, "it might as well
be someone no one would miss, right?"

               *              *              *              *

[January 16, 2027 - The Multiversal Office, Eurasian Union Reception]

     "We're not leaving the EU sector," Solar Max cautioned the small group
as it entered through the nondescript door in the Prague office building.
"But that doesn't mean we can't get lost, or run afoul of red tape.  In
principle, it's likely we just need to go through that door," he gestured to
a doorway next to the empty reception desk, "find a floor map, and walk at
most a hundred meters to find our way out."
     "But that's like saying we just need to stop by to renew our driver's
license," Arc nodded.  "We could spend all day diverted from one thing to
     "It's so empty," Poniente noted as the door shut behind them, leaving
the sextet fully within the interdimensional reality.  "There's no soul to
this room, even though it looks like someone just stepped out for coffee,"
she ran a gloved hand along the top of the reception desk, coming away
totally clean.  "It's...waiting."
     "The Office wants to be used," Meteor nodded, "but it's a trap.  Like a
pitcher plant.  Maybe accepting its invitation would benefit us in the long
run, but..." she shuddered, her speed rendering it almost a buzz.
     "I don't sense any electricity," Oni looked about the reception room,
then up at the overhead lights.  "The surface details all look like one would
expect from a modern office, but the lights...just work.  No current, the
light isn't really light either.  We just think there's light."
     "And that isn't ominous at all, is it?" Pasteur bent to inspect a potted
plant.  "Like this plant.  If you look closely, it's not artificial, but
neither is it living.  It lacks the aura of life, does it not, Poniente?" he
turned to ASH's mage.
     She shook her head.  "Like Oni said.  It all looks normal and mundane,
but none of this is real.  The plant does have an aura of life, but it's
incredibly faint and indistinguishable from the aura of this desk, or the
carpet.  I think the entire dimension is alive, its spirit spread out over an
unimaginable volume."
     "Should we go in now, or wait to see if someone...something...comes back
to the reception desk?" Arc asked.
     "We didn't wait at the desk last time," Solar Max shrugged.  He wasn't
wearing his usual armor, due to its bulk, but the "dress uniform" he had on
was well armored and had a few surprises built into it, just in case.  "But
something feels more alive than last time, doesn't it?" he turned to his
     Meteor paused.  "I think you're right.  Which is weird, because it's
Saturday, you'd think it'd feel less alive.  Assuming the Office observes
weekends.  It's always Monday somewhere, I guess?"
     "Worst case, it means Lady Sable's already sent some people through from
her end..." Pasteur smiled in a very discomfiting way.

               *              *              *              *

[January 16, 2027 - Pawtucket, Rhode Island Sector]

     A Tyrone approached M'emba in the courtyard, where she used the sharp
cold of the New England winter as an aid in meditation.  One of the stranger
results of this new world "translating" the refugees of M'emba's home reality
was that many of the common folk shared one of a handful of appearances.  It
was never something she recalled being a significant issue back home, the
similarity was sometimes noted but was never a real problem.  Here, they
formed what amounted to clone cohorts, down to the DNA.  Most of them even
shared a given name, such as Tyrone, but even those who didn't have the
"family" name had come to be referred to by the most common name of their
genetic type.  
     Mystically, however, the souls were still quite distinct, so M'emba
immediately knew that this Tyrone was one of the faithful, one of the
residents of the island district of the lost city, who funnelled aid to the
faithful while maintaining a cover as a law-abiding citizen.  The banished
gods gave their followers power and sundered the barrier between life and
death, but sometimes money was still useful.
     "There is a rock in the garden," Tyrone pointed into the snow-dusted
area outside of the wards that M'emba had constructed to keep her safe during
meditation, "that wishes to speak to you."
     M'emba felt a chill up her spine.  She was the only shaman of the
faithful to escape the doomed world, and death was her patron.  None of the
shamans of the mountains and earth had made the voyage.  Could this be a sign
that her strange new home did in fact have worshippers of the dead gods?  or
had she awakened unfamiliar and unfriendly powers with her scrying?
     "Lead me to it," she nodded, standing and wrapping her cloak against the
chill biting into her flesh now that she was no longer in a meditative
     She followed Tyrone and he pointed to a particular stone, no larger than
a fist, but strangely free of snow or ice.
     "What would you ask of me, honored rock?" M'emba arched her eyebrow.
     "If you don't recognize a communication spell, shaman, then we might not
have any use for each other," a woman's voice spoke as lips formed on the
surface of the stone.  "But if I could not recognize sarcasm, the same would
be true."
     "Indeed.  As the other mages I am aware of would have been either more
direct or far more circumspect, I believe I am addressing the Terrastar?"
M'emba nodded.
     "You are," the stone spoke.
     "I know little about you, as my hosts are reluctant to reveal much to
one as I," M'emba said as she stooped to pick up the stone.  "But I do gather
that you are no more native to this world than I am.  Surely your gods and
mine are not the same."
     "My gods are dead, because we killed them millennia ago," the stone
replied.  "Judging by what the gods did in this world, I'd say we made the
right decision.  I don't know if your...hosts...informed you or not, but it
appears someone would like to increase the number of gods in this world by
one, and I'm not enthusiastic about the prospect."
     "And why would I be interested in stopping this?" M'emba replied,
motioning for Tyrone to return to whatever he'd been doing before hearing the
stone.  It was not that she mistrusted him, or any of the remaining faithful,
but it was best to not gather for too long in any observable location.  For
her part, she walked back to her place of meditation and resumed the pose she
had been holding, but she did not raise her wards or enter a meditative
     As she walked, Terrastar's lips on the stone smiled silently,
recognizing the need for discretion as well.  Once M'emba was once again
seated, Terrastar continued, "I have been pursuing my own avenues of
research, and I came across your scrying...and more importantly, what you may
have found recently.  Now, this is purest supposition, but I have learned
that the existence of magic means that wild coincidences are more likely than
people would think.  I believe that our would-be new goddess might have found
a way to feed upon the power of your dead god...or someone enough like him
for you to feel the similarity."

               *              *              *              *

[January 16, 2027 - The Multiversal Office, Eurasian Union Floor]

     Poniente put her ear to the door.  "Nothing.  But from what you've told
me about the office, that need not mean anything."
     "Right," Solar Max nodded.  "Even with nano dust breadcrumbs, we had
trouble maintaining a connection across the floors of even the Combine
offices, the doorways could easily be teleportals of some sort, with nothing
at all on the other side until we open the door."
     "All the better for the boss to sneak up on you," Meteor observed
     "As far as the aura is concerned, the door is the same as the wall
around it," Poniente added, and Oni nodded silent concurrence.
     "So, the only way to find out more is to open the door," Sadi shrugged,
stepping forwards.  "I'll open it and get out of the way, while one of you
sturdier sorts stands ready to greet the room?"
     No one had a better plan, so Arc stood ready at the doorway, Solar Max
and Meteor flanking her.  Poniente and Oni stayed out of the arc of
visibility on the other side of the door from where Pasteur would be moving.
     The moment the door opened even a crack, there was a torrent of
clattering, tapping, and clicking.  The sound washed through the reception
area, not so loud that conversation was impossible, but loud enough to make
hearts sink.  Even before anyone could see inside, they knew the room was
     VERY occupied.
     For that was the sound of an enormous room full of workers, busily
typing away.
     "Merde," Arc spat as she saw the room, involuntarily taking a step back.
     Every cubicle within view was occupied by a featureless female humanoid
figure, like a mannequin made from the thinnest porcelain.  None of them
looked towards the door or gave any sign they could see or hear anything
other than their workload.
     "What are...?" Poniente started to ask as she edged out of hiding.
     "Matrioshkas.  The Impossible Five have infiltrated the Multiversal
Office somehow," Solar Max replied.

               *              *              *              *

[January 16, 2027 - Bonn, Germany]

     Vera pulled her "graycell" phone from her purse and thumbed the screen
on.  It looked like a perfectly ordinary high-end consumer phone, but it had
a few legally gray functions...such as the one that had just pinged at her.
     Otto was spending money again.
     She sighed.  Their grandfather had left them both fairly sizeable
inheritances, but since Otto was still only 16, his was in a trust.
Technically, Vera wasn't a trustee, but their parents tended to be way too
hands-off in their parenting, she felt.  So she'd had one of her friends with
a friend in the gray tech market get her a tap onto Otto's accounts.  He
wasn't supposed to be able to access them at all without approval of either
their parents or (more often) their parents' lawyer, but Vera wasn't the only
one in the family who knew people who knew their way around computer
security, and every so often Otto would break into the trust and waste some
of his inheritance on something even their parents wouldn't approve of.
     And they had approved of the "Road Rager" style Ihimaera motorcycle he'd
wanted when he turned 16, so that was a pretty low bar to ooze under.
     She almost let out a yelp when she saw the results of her tap.
     Otto had drained the entire fund and placed it into his personal
     Fighting down panic, she immediately placed a call to the family lawyer.
     "Pick up already," she muttered.
     "Yes, I know it's the weekend," she replied to the annoyed voice on the
other end.  "Otto's taken the whole trust fund.  Yes, you know I have ways of
knowing, but check for yourself.  None of his other little hacks got away
with much before the watchdog programs kicked in, you need to get someone
on...WHAT?  The system thinks he's an adult now?  How thinks this is
the year 2052?"

               *              *              *              *

[January 16, 2027 - The Multiversal Office, Berlin Section]

     "Do they see us?" Sadi Pasteur asked, flattening himself even more
tightly against the wall.
     Solar Max paused, then stepped into the cubicle farm.  There was no
change in the tenor of the typing, and not a single porcelain-like figure
looked away from its computer screen.  "Looks like they've all fallen into
the Office's trap, like Li Fan last time we were here.  But since they're
already far as we know, anyway...I guess they were even more
susceptible to the Office's siren song."
     "Makes sense," Meteor observed as the rest of the group slowly left the
reception area, Pasteur last of them.  "If any one of the shells could remain
under Matrioshka's control long enough to do useful work, she wouldn't have
needed to spawn off so many."
     "Or she got a LOT of work done," Pasteur pointed out.
     "Thanks, I was trying to not think about that," Arc sighed.  "I guess we
just have to hope that whatever the Impossible Five's mission here was, it
failed.  I don't suppose we can figure out how long ago these shells were
abandoned to their fate?"
     Poniente frowned.  "If I'd ever met the original, I could try to read
the auras of the shells to see how long they've been separated, but even that
would be assuming that the Office wouldn't overwrite their minimal spirits
     Oni silently ran a gloved finger along a shelf and held it up.  Clean,
like the reception area.
     "So we can't tell if any dust has built up on the dolls," Arc nodded.
"We could probably figure it out if we logged into an available
terminal...assuming there are any...but then we risk getting stuck."
     "Poniente, Pasteur...take a moment to mystically record whatever you can
glean from their auras, physical makeup, whatever," Solar Max ordered.  "Even
if we have nothing to compare it to now, we might be able to get more intel
on Matrioshka later."
     The two mages silently assented and each concentrated in their own way
on the lifeless shells that the alternate future villain had shed from her
own armor.  Sadi pulled out a high-end whitecell with a sensor package
attached and took readings, his variety of hermetic magic being backed by as
much actual science as he could manage.  He'd complained earlier about being
forced to leave his blackcell behind, but eventually agreed that the Office
might decide it violated internal policy and...Do Something.  So, only nice
legal people with nice legal tech.  For her part, Poniente quickly knotted a
few lengths of string into a mystic pattern to act as a sort of external
memory, a ritual she'd adapted from the idea of the dreamcatcher.  
     After about a minute, both mages were finished.
     "Okay, none of them have so much as twitched while you were analyzing
them, so I think we can put the Matrioshka's in the 'worry about later' bin
and keep moving," Arc gestured towards the far side of the cubicle farm,
where doors to other departments could be seen.
     "Agreed," Solar Max nodded, and five of the six supernormals started
walking.  Oni did not.
     "Something wrong?" Meteor asked her.
     "I am not sure," the young Japanese woman furrowed her brow.  "I think
that whatever not-electricity powers the fixtures of the Office now also runs
through the Matrioshka shells.  But I cannot think of how I might use that
knowledge to determine their age, I admit."
     "More data for later," Arc gestured at her teammate to follow, and they
all set off for the door to Berlin, the original goal of the expedition.
     After a fairly short walk past rank upon rank of mindlessly typing
automata, Poniente stopped, rubbing her temples in discomfort.  "Something's
WRONG about the door."
     "Wrong how...oh, I see it too," Pasteur seemed slightly taken aback.
"Vaugely non-Euclidian?"
     Solar Max reached out with his ability to sense gravitational fields,
something that generally hadn't told him anything useful in the Office
before, but now?  "You're right.  Normally gravity in here is a tightly
uniform value, as if they looked up standard gravity in a manual and applied
it everywhere.  But it's starting to ripple around the Berlin door."
     "Is the effect coming from this side or the other side?" Arc asked.
     "Can't tell from here," Solar Max frowned.  "I'm not sure which idea
makes me more uncomfortable, though."
     "I vote for 'other side' being worse," Meteor chimed in.  "That'd mean
Lady Sable is definitely trying to get in here right now.  If it's coming
from this side, it could just be the Office taking precautions in *case* she
     "Let's get a little closer, if you can do that without too much pain?"
Solar Max asked Poniente.
     "It's not really that bad, more like looking at a too-bright light," she
     "Meteor, try a quick in-out and see if anything reacts?" Arc suggested,
and Solar Max nodded.
     As soon as the speedster started to move, the nearest Matrioshkas leapt
from their cubicles and barred the way, with Meteor almost slamming into them
before reversing course.
     "Did the Office make them do that, or was that..." Solar Max began,
before being cut off by Arc.
     "Oni, stop!"
     Oni's body slumped to the floor as the "magnetic ghost" left it,
invisibly moving into one of the Matrioshka shells.  The shell started to
spasm as if standing on a downed power line.
     "Czzzn't kkkktrrrl..." the normally silent shell sputtered before
bursting into nanoparticle dust.
     As one, all of the Matrioshkas swarmed towards the assembled heroes
(and one villain).
     "Oni must've hit a security override!" Solar Max shouted. 
     "I hate fight scenes!" Pasteur ducked into one of the vacated cubicles,
narrowly missed by the Matrioshka that had just vacated it.
     The next minute or so was a flurry of porcelain shards and dust as the
mindless and effectively directionless shells executed some sort of failsafe
that even the Office hadn't weeded out of them.  Unlike the fight around
Monaco, though, they did not seem particularly dangerous and were quite
     Before long, the office was faintly dusty for the first time in perhaps
its entire history, the dust being made up of self-destructed nanoparticle
     "Either these were never meant for a fight, or being separated from
'mom' weakened them a lot," Arc observed as she brushed some nanoparticles
out of her hair.  "We're going to need a full decon suite when we get back, I
don't trust this dust to be 100% inert, even if that's all we've ever gotten
from defeated shells."
     "And we might as well go back no," Pasteur said, poking up out of the
cubicle and pointing past the group.  "The Berlin door is gone."

               *              *              *              *

[January 16, 2027 - Somewhere on the Mediterranean Shore]

     "The signals have been lost, mistress," Cronyx spoke from Matrioshka's
palm.  The diminutive holographic Artificial Consciousness "daemon"
technically served as the silent Russian's assistant, but most of the time he
was simply her voice expressed at a remove.  Thus, it was sometimes unclear
if "mistress" referred to Matrioshka herself, or to the woman she reported
     That woman, who preferred to be known only as Never thanks to the fact
that the version of her native to this time would never become her, rarely
let such ambiguity bother her, however.  "Anything come through before the
     Matrioshka shook her head in unison with Cronyx, and the daemon replied,
"Something triggered the self-destructs.  But that is all the information the
Office seems willing to have let us have.  The independent units should have
run out of power some time ago, however, so they did not self-destruct simply
as a result of powering down.  The Office must have been keeping them running
until...they didn't."
     "That's something, at least.  The Office wanted them to continue
existing.  I presume that any humans caught at one of those desks would never
have to worry about starving to death, either.  For all its power, the Office
seems to need workers, even such minimally living ones as your shells.  There
might be some other cause, but I'm going to assume that someone else entered
the Office and interfered with the enslaved units, which ultimately led to
their dissolution," Never speculated.  She rarely used her paranormal ability
anymore, her true power was an uncanny insight into the motivations of her
rivals and enemies, honed by decades of practice in a timeline that would
never be.  "Given the current crisis in Berlin, and the fact we accessed the
EU branch of the Office using our credentials as rulers of much of Europe, it
doesn't take a genius to figure out who might have been there to interfere."
     "Indeed not, mistress," Cronyx nodded.  "Sadly, those credentials have
since been voided, as the Office seems to have taken our arrival as a
reminder to clean up after itself.  I am curious what might have happened had
we tried to exit to our original timeline, before that option was eliminated
from the directory."
     "It could have taken us home, yes.  Or it could have deposited us in a
void of unbeing...just because the Office still remembered our timeline after
its diversion doesn't mean it would let us go there.  Time travel theory has
never been very reliable, maybe our home still exists somewhere and somewhen
in the multiverse, but we do know that there are still barriers between many
of the alternatives, even leaving aside the infamous 1998 Barrier.  Best to
make the most of what we have in this new timeline, and continue the long
     "A pity we could not extract much information of use in that long game,
before each of the units was suborned," Cronyx said in an imitation of
     "Oh, never count any information as useless or insignificant.  We just
don't know yet how we'll be able to use what we found before we were

               *              *              *              *

[January 17, 2027 - Eurasian Union Regional Assembly, Prague]

     "Well, that was a bust," Solar Max addressed the room.  "At least we
didn't end up worse off than before.  On the plus side, we have some intel on
the Impossible Five's recent activities, and correlating that with some weird
bureaucratic snafus in the last few days suggests they were in the Office at
least five days ago."
     "The year 2052 cropping up in systems probably should've clued someone
in before today," Lightfoot frowned.
     "Don't be too hard on the bureaucrats, Tom," Arc shrugged.  "Information
about the I5 is kept on a need to know basis.  Tripped up by our own
information security."
     "In any case," Solar Max resumed, his summing up, "we're no closer to
getting into Berlin.  Does anyone else have any ideas?"


Author's Notes: 

     Wow, two issues in one calendar year!  At this rate, I might even have
City of Night completed before the 25th Anniversary of ASH!

     On the topic of the anniversary, we might be doing something special for
that, it's still in the early musing stage.  I've reached out to people who
have written for ASH and started soliciting ideas...we want some sort of
coherent (pun intended) theme, but not tight interlocking continuity that
would bog things down until the 26th anniversary.

     The Tyrones are a reference to how older MMOs like City of Heroes only
had a limited selection of faces for the NPCs, so you might run into two NPC
mission contacts who are identical except for the color of their tie.  The
usual in-game explanation for this sort of thing is that the differences
exist below the resolution of the graphics, and in "real life" you could
easily tell the two NPCs apart were they standing next to each other.  I
decided to go the other way, and have them really be identical once they were
run through the CoH-to-ASH filter.  


     For all the back issues, plus additional background information, art,
and more, go to ! is the official ASH Wiki, focusing on the Fourth
Heroic Age, but containing some information about other Ages.


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