It Rises

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From the depths of the Earth, it rises.

The ground shudders, cleaves in two, while nearby rocks tip and slide into the endless dark below. The Earth groans, a deafening rumble like the blast of nearby dynamite, then falls silent, holding its breath in anticipation.

At last, the creature peeks at the world above through its twenty slitted eyes. It is still groggy, still half asleep, and for a moment it thinks it must be dreaming, for the Earth has changed since it saw it last.

No longer wild, no longer the boundless expanse of forests, mountains, and rocks it once was, the world is now hedged into neatly trimmed lines, penned in on every side by foreign constructions of metal and artificial stone. A strange configuration, certainly the makings of a dream. Yet after further examination beneath the blazing light of the sun, it understands that what it sees is real enough.

Dazed, it heaves itself to the surface and yawns. Change or no change, it feels good to be awake, to roam the Earth once more.

A shrill cry, followed by a scream. The creature turns its bulbous head.

The organisms it encounters are ghastly, hideous bipeds with bodies like bean poles and large, gaping orifices through which they utter the most horrendous sound.

Terrified, it bounds across the grass.

More cries, along with meaty, gutteral slaps as the organisms turn their heads to communicate. It runs, through a series of black marked paths and artificial stone walks, it runs, encompassed everywhere by towering, glass-filled monoliths, flashing lights atop iron poles, and self-propelled vehicles that screech to a halt as the creature flees the nightmare that surrounds it.

It can’t get away. Everywhere it turns, those ghastly creatures shout at it, pointing, shrieking, gibbering with equal parts terror and rage. Yes, indeed, the world has changed, and not for the better.

Exhausted, overwhelmed, and out of its depth, it scrambles back to the field it rose out of. Let these hateful creatures have their world. As for itself, it’s seen enough.

It arrives at the tunnel to its home to find more mutant bipeds, staring down into its private space like shameless voyeurs.

Rage consumes it. My home. They’ve surrounded MY home! All it wanted was to walk the Earth in peace, and even this simple pleasure has been taken from it. Fine, but it’ll be damned if it’s going to let these horrid creatures rob it of his only remaining sanctuary.

It peers down at them with each of its twenty eyes and lets loose a ferocious howl. So low, so deep is the sound that the ground begins to resonate. Once more, the Earth shakes, and those evil creatures, terrified, scurry like the ants they are, leaving it alone at last.

It leaps into the hole, descends the mile-long tunnel to its home. Then it covers the opening with a fresh avalanche of stone. It finds its dark and rocky mattress undisturbed and jumps into it like a frightened child, willing the nightmare to end.

Maybe when it next awakens, the world will have changed again, this time for the better.

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Answering the Call

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I.

Shining.

Resplendent.

A world of white sand and endless palms, of navy blue skies and shimmering otherworldly horizons.

You belong. You are one of us.

It calls to me. In the dark and endless night, it calls to me.

Come. Be one with us.

But I can’t. Not yet. The tether that binds me to my Earthly life holds fast; I cannot escape.

Oh, but that other world: It calls to me, and every day, it gets harder to turn away.

II.

A dream.

I am floating. Soaring through the clouds. Riding a jet stream through endless blue.

Not clouds anymore but foam, like the froth from a just opened bottle of champagne. And water, sparkling like a bed of polished sapphires.

Come. You belong. You are one of us.

I am ache and need. I know no other purpose, no other destiny than to answer this ancient, unyielding call.

A hand, reaching from beyond to carry me away. I stretch to grasp it with my own. But it’s so far away, so very far away…

I come awake beneath the dim and silver light of the moon.

A spark kindles in my chest—a smoldering ember of pain and desire that I realize now will never die—and I lie awake until the sun’s first rays pierce my bedroom window with their sickly, comatose light.

III.

Pain.

I turn my weathered, pockmarked face toward a gray and ashen sky and cringe when the worn out joints in my knees issue a loud, crackling pop.

I behold the world from the other side of time, as an old man who’s ascended the golden ladder of life, only to discover it was never actually gold, only worthless, tarnished brass.

The spark that erupted in my chest long ago has transformed into a fire. I am immolation and desolation made flesh—consumed by hurt and heartbreak, and ravaged by broken promises, I am cast adrift.

Come.

For years, I’ve ignored that other world’s call. It was just noise, I told myself, a foolish fancy with no real-world significance. Only now, my “real-world” life is useless to me.

Old and infirm, I can no longer work, and those I once loved are dead. The Earth, rich in promises, has gifted me with rags.

Now, I strain at last to hear that other world’s voice—Come. You belong. You are one of us.—and bring it into focus once more.

I know now where my true home lies, and I turn away from my former life to follow after it.

IV.

A threshold.

Beyond: blue skies, white sand, and endless sparkling ocean. Behind: gray clouds, desolation, and endless darkness. It’s a wonder I remained for as long as I did.

The entrance to that other world is ringed in fire, but I do not hesitate.

I walk forward.

Forward into the fire.

Forward into love.

Forward into the light.

V.

A flash.

Pain.

I cry out, hold fast to that other world’s call as my old self is burned away.

Come. You belong. You are one of us.

Suddenly, the pain is gone.

I am a new creation.

Love envelopes me.

I am home at last.

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Homecoming

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An almost volcanic heat rose from the dark green lake in heavy, steaming clouds, while the sun, smoky and dim, lent the day a faded, dusky cast. Andrea peered up at the thick, leathery trees, which clung to the perimeter of the water like towering ancient sentries, then back at the squat, vine-encrusted hut where she and her husband, Zemon, had lived for the past seven years.

A strange world, with little that resembled the home she’d grown up in. But Zemon was a native, and she’d decided to follow him back. It had been a difficult adjustment, and even now, she couldn’t say she loved this world. The days were intolerably hot, the locals could be private and standoffish, and while beautiful, the alien plants and wildlife, along with the brilliant emerald green oceans that covered ninety-eight percent of the planet’s surface, were irreconcilably different from her world of bright sun and blue skies.

But today, things were going to change. Today, they were going to pass through the Iron Gate and move back home to her family.

Ready, Andrea?

Her husband’s words unfurled inside her mind without sound. After all these years, the experience still sent a shuddering thrill across her body.

Soon, dear.

He came up behind her, his eyes reflecting back the dim, uneven light from above, and encompassed her in his lithe, silvery arms. She could sense his sadness. He tried to mask it, but she knew him too well, and it was impossible for him to be anything but himself with her.

Andrea reached out to give his hand a gentle squeeze.

It’ll be all right. We’ll only be gone a few years, and then you’ll be home again.

It was the compromise they’d struck the day they agreed to spend the rest of their lives together. Seven years in his world, followed by seven years in hers.

Zemon nodded.

A curious combination of anticipation and guilt fluttered in her chest as she conjured a mental image of her hometown in Iowa. She thought of her parents, her grandmother, her nieces and nephews, all living together under a single roof. She thought of fresh baked bread, biscuits and pie. Most of all, she thought of endless corn fields and navy blue skies, all priceless treasures of an ordinary life she hadn’t appreciated until after she’d gone away.

Now I know how you felt when you gave up part of your life for me.

At least there’ll be cornbread, she replied.

Zemon’s eyes lit up, a bright yellow rush of avaricious desire.

Yes, cornbread.

And grits.

Yes, he agreed. And grits.

Once more, Andrea would be the native and Zemon would be the foreigner. But he loved her as much as she loved him, and through that love, they would forge a path through the next seven years.

Come.

They clasped hands, and together they set off for the Iron Gate.

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I Saw Her Again

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The line we draw between reality and fantasy is a fragile thing, a brittle house of glass that requires only one small pebble, one hairline crack, to fall shattering to the ground.

I saw her again.

I saw her again, and my psyche, like our metaphorical house of glass, burst into a million sparkling pieces.

I was seven when I watched her die, and I was thirty when I spied her outside in the pouring rain, holding an umbrella in her right hand, along with a smoldering cigarette in her left.

I can already hear what you’re going to say next. How do I know she was the same person? People look like other people all the time. And if not for what happened next, I’d say you were right.

The world, dreary and gray, took on a hollow, distant cast. I thought, surely, I must be dreaming. I wanted to move on, wanted to shy away from the uncanny encounter before I could be undone. But in such mad and dreamlike moments, we do odd things—dangerous things we wouldn’t dare attempt by the ordinary light of day.

I pulled up beside her, not minding the cold and the damp and the pelting rain, and I said, “Excuse me, don’t I know you from someplace?”

In the instant before she turned, I thought, This is all a misunderstanding. The crawling goosebumps will pass, and when I see for myself that she isn’t the same person, that it was only a bit of déjà vu, I’ll wander on, shaking my head and wondering how I could have been such a fool.

But then she looked at me, and she was the same person, and I stood there in a hapless stupor as her lips curled into a malicious sneer.

“Hello, Joseph. How good to see you again.”

That from the woman I watched die.

That from the woman I helped my father kill.

“Say hello to your father for me.”

Then she turned away, just another stranger in the pouring rain. First I was walking. Then jogging. Then running. I careened down the puddle-laden street, convinced she was right behind me, ready to mete out cold, hard justice at last.

Murderer, whispered a part of myself I’d locked away for twenty-three years.

Impossible, shrieked another.

And inside, in the manic chambers of a shattered mind, a million shards of my broken soul clambered and shouted at once.

Now I am broken, and like Humpty Dumpty, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put me together again.

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The Cup

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The cup is full.

I place it to my lips, tilt my head back, and drink.

The cup is empty.

I return it to the table beside the TV and go to work. When I come home again at six thirty—when I sit once more before the table, remote in hand, ready to drown myself in a hurricane of commercials and prime time programming—I reach for it again.

The cup is full.

I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know how or why it works. I only know that it’s a family heirloom, passed down to me by my mother and passed down to her by her mother before her—an ancient artifact, filigreed in untarnished silver and embossed in gold relief. Its means of production unknown, it is both a paradox and a mystery, a bold and strident reminder of all the things in the world we have yet to understand.

The liquid that materializes inside is tangy, salty, sweet. Like a gourmet meal. Like a decadent dessert. It has nourished me two to three times per day since I inherited the cup at the tender age of eighteen.

How much good could such a relic accomplish in a world ravaged by hunger and thirst? Yet it has somehow managed to fall into my lap, into that of a single middle class, middle-aged man with a decent job, a steady income, and plenty of food at his disposal.

A cruel and senseless joke, I think, setting it down on the table once more. But then the world is a savage and irrational place. It knows not of justice and balance, only of chaos and disorder.

With no children of my own, I sometimes wonder what will happen to the cup after I’m gone. Will it rot in a box, forgotten now that its stewards are no more? Or will someone happen upon it by accident, take it for their own, and start a new tradition?

I shift in my seat, dangerously close to a maddening truth I dare not think about for very long, and let the flickering pictures on the TV deliver me into oblivion.

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Blue

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Because I attended the ConDFW in Texas this past week, I didn’t have time to prepare a new piece of flash fiction. Instead, I’ve reposted one of my Patreon shorts from last year. It should be new for most of you. I’ll have an original story for you guys next week 🙂

The stone had always been blue. Since time unremembered it had sat, polished and round, mounted in the center of the city. The people would go out in the middle of the night when it shone most brightly, and in the presence of that otherworldly glow, they would kneel and pay it homage.

It was their bedrock, the binding force that kept them civilized. A covenant between man and the infinite. So when the stone stopped giving its light, when the city’s streets went dark for the first time in recorded history, chaos loomed.

“It’s the end of the world!” they wailed. “The Gods have abandoned us.”

The priests tried to maintain order.

“Calm yourselves,” they said, taking up defensive positions around the stone. “It is only a test. We must be steadfast in our faith. Then the Gods will show us their favor once more.”

The people grumbled, restless and uneasy, but, one by one, they returned to their homes, some to pray, others to brood in silent worry.

The following night, they approached the center of the city. Once more, they saw the stone was dark.

They turned to the priests and asked, “What explanation will you offer us now?” They were wild-eyed, terrified, and half out of their minds.

Once more, the priests tried to maintain order.

“Calm yourselves,” they said. “The test has not ended. Be strong and keep the faith of our ancestors.”

“The Gods have abandoned us!” they cried. “What use are you now?”

“Be still,” the priests admonished. “The Gods have done no such thing. Return tomorrow, and you will see for yourselves that the stone gives light once more.”

Again the people grumbled. Some challenged them further, some even threatened violence if the stone was not restored to its former state as had been promised.

The priests watched them turn back, watched them disappear like apparitions, and, inwardly, they trembled. They had not a clue why the stone went dark, nor when it would share its light again.

“Please,” they implored together through a formal rite of prayer that hadn’t been invoked for more than a thousand years. “We beseech thee, the Gods of our ancestors, return to us thy divine light so that order might be restored.”

Exhausted and afraid, they retired to their quarters to sleep.

That night, the children of the city dreamed. They saw the pillars of their civilization crumble, saw their elders perish in an all-consuming fire that seemed to rise from the bowels of the Earth. An ancient cycle was nearing its end, and in that dream, a voice urged them to run if they would be a part of the next.

They each woke in a cold sweat, eyes lit with terror. But none spoke of the strange vision until much later.

The third night approached. The priests went out ahead of the crowd and observed with growing terror that the stone was still dark. They held the people back with exhortations of prayer, but, in the end, they could delay them no longer.

When the people beheld that infernal darkness, the priests tried once more to pacify them. But the citizens of the city were enraged. They were certain now the Gods had abandoned them, and all their priests could do was offer empty promises of salvation.

“The Gods have defied your predictions,” one man cried, “yet you would stand here and assure us all is well. We’re through with your lies!”

The people attacked.

The children, left behind by parents who’d already feared the streets would grow violent, heard a whisper ride in on the coattails of the wind.

Get out. Find safety outside the city walls and don’t return until the next full moon.

One by one, they filtered out into the dark.

Meanwhile, the people, having sacrificed their priests, turned on each other. A frantic, desperate bloodlust had filled their eyes and they were overtaken by an urgent need to destroy. They swept through the city like a plague, looting, murdering, burning buildings to the ground, so that in the end only a single person remained. In his final moments, he gazed up at the moon, mad with lunatic understanding, and ran himself through with his sword.

*               *               *

On the next full moon, the children crept back to the ruins of their city as the voice had told them. They passed the skeletal remains of their homes, the stinking, bloated bodies of their dead parents. The younger ones threw up. The older ones took them into their arms and led them away.

They found the stone, standing in the center as it always had. They gathered around it and lifted their voices in prayer. For a moment, there was only the wind, which whistled through broken archways and windows like a ghost. Then there was a flicker and a flash. They opened their eyes. The stone was blue once more. The children offered thanks.

In the morning, the older ones started to rebuild.

The land’s thirst for blood had been sated.

The new cycle had begun.

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Star Light, Star Bright

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Star light, star bright,
The first star I see tonight;
I wish I am, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.

It was a nursery rhyme his grandmother had taught him when he was five, and he remembered it tonight, when the celestial canvas above spread itself before him like gold dust, when she, his beloved star, beamed down from the sky, a glistening pearl against a backdrop of jewel-encrusted black. So much larger than the other stars, she dominated the heavens, a goddess among angels.

“My love,” he called out after reciting his grandmother’s poem like an incantation, “come back for me.”

“Then you wish to return home?” came her reply.

Sam thought of where he’d come from; of the songs he and his siblings would sing, rippling through space and time without beginning or end; of the way the lights from colliding galaxies and stars would caper and dance against the looming silver spires and golden streets of his city in the sky; and, most importantly, of his queen, the star who addressed him now, garbed in shimmering robes so white, so bright that no earthly dye could reproduce them.

“Yes, I do.”

Long ago, he’d asked to become human. He’d wanted to be different, to experience the sort of corporeal life that was inaccessible to his kind. But as his earthly brethren were so fond of saying, the grass was always greener on the other side, and only after the ethereal wonders of his former life were far behind him had he realized his mistake.

“It’s lonely here,” he continued, choking back a sob. “Our minds are closed to each other. A person might say one thing and mean something else entirely. People are tiny islands of private thought surrounded by endless dark.”

“But do you not know,” said the star, “that what we are, so too shall they become? Were I not to bring you home now, you would still return to us at the end of your life, and by that time you would have learned much.”

“No,” he whispered, and he could hold back his tears no longer. “Please, don’t make me wait.”

Her light grew so intense, so bright that Sam had to squint his eyes to narrow slits. She was descending now, becoming part of his world.

“This is not a punishment,” she sang, and he could feel her inside of him now, warming his heart, imparting love and life and light. “It is a journey. Take the good with the bad. Savor your brokenness and your imperfections, your sadness and your despair, for they will teach you far more than we ever could. There’s a reason you longed to be human. Your nature demanded it, and I would not rob you of it now.”

Sam wept like a child, tears pattering the grass beneath his feet like rain.

“Live your life, and when your time on Earth is complete, you will take your place beside me once more.”

“Yes, my love. I understand.” It came out a hoarse whisper.

She shot out of him then, and as her light receded into the distance, as his beloved star faded until she was indistinguishable from the rest of his brothers and sisters, he pondered the mysteries of time and death and wondered when he would be whole once more.

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Quest

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Bright, shining, like precious metal. A cosmic mystery, embedded in the center of the universe. I reach out to touch it, to be one with its magic. But like similar magnetic poles, it repels me, pushes me back whenever I get close.

“You can look,” it taunts, “but not touch.”

But I’m unable to look away. Within its boundless folds is something vital, something necessary for my soul’s survival, and it is my mission, my life’s work to get at what’s inside.

Like King Arthur quests for the Holy Grail, I quest for Truth. It can repel me all it likes, but I will never take my eyes off the Light. It calls to me with its divine and supernatural song, a chorus of elysian notes that has long since conquered my weary, downtrodden heart.

For now, it will remain out of reach. But I know that in the fullness of time, my quest will end. This mortal shell will fall away. The universe will unfurl to reveal its cosmic fruit—immortal, transcendent—and on that day, my soul will rush forward, swelling with anticipation, and be one with it at last.

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My Hour Has Come

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Behold, my hour has come.

I can feel my spirit return to dry, dusty bones; I can feel the mass of the Earth itself rush forward to fill the vacuum left behind by my long ago demise, to reconstitute a body that hasn’t known life since the world was just a ball of glowing primordial slag.

I was the beginning of all things, and I suppose it is fitting that I should also be the end.

For ages the world has spun, making endless revolutions around the sun like a dog chasing its tail. A shining cosmic pearl, it was yet tarnished by war, famine and disease, so that upon its blighted, darkened surface, life of every kind has wallowed in suffering without end, never capable of perceiving the supernal mysteries that have underpinned the world’s foundation since its very inception.

This darkness was inevitable, of course, even necessary; it’s been the fire that’s kept the world in a perpetual state of motion and change. But it was never the purpose for which the world was built, and now that time itself draws to a close, I am ready to rise from the ground and render judgement.

Behold, I will plunge my sword of fire deep into the Earth, until it splits down the middle like an overripe gourd. Mountains, oceans, whole continents will be swallowed and destroyed, so that the world in its newest incarnation will be nothing like the old.

I will separate the wheat from the chaff; the righteous from the unrighteous. The Earth will burn in one final fire, the hottest and brightest it has ever known, and the impurities wrought by wicked hands will be incinerated, so that the world can be made forever pristine and without blemish.

Those of you who have done no harm, rejoice, for when your wailing has ended and the Earth has been remade, you will find eternal rest. Those of you who have caused great pain, beware, for my wrath is everlasting, and the agonies you experience today are but a preview of the horrors yet to come.

Prepare yourselves, for the world you have always known will pass away.

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Donald

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“It’s so beautiful.”

Jackie lost herself in the endless expanse of blue. The surface of the ocean rippled forward and back, and she found herself hypnotized, drawn into its mysterious depths and all that lay beyond.

She couldn’t make out her lover’s expression—indeed, she could make out little of the creature at all save for a faint shimmer that wavered in the air before her like a mirage—but she liked to imagine he was smiling with her, that, though he was not human, he was capable of perceiving the beauty of the world around them through whatever senses he possessed.

After an extended silence, she turned, headed for a large, flat stone that jutted out of a larger cliff face and sat to watch the sun set beneath the rolling waves. Soon enough, her spectral partner followed.

“When I was a child,” she said without looking up, “my brothers and I would come here with our parents. They would play volleyball or build sand castles, but I always headed straight for the water.”

The tides of time began to pull her in, and soon she was drifting, wading through the distant past, through a time when the world had been a simpler place, when the world had been a convenient mosaic of black and white truths. Oh, what she would give to experience those years again, to travel back to childhood in the body as well as in the mind.

“I used to pretend the water was evil, that I had to swim against its malicious currents while it tried to drown me. I imagined it nearly overpowering me, only just before I gave out, I’d always spy a secret island in the distance and swim toward it, knowing that was where my quest would end.”

Jackie sighed, and when she gazed up at the coppery light of the setting sun through her mostly transparent companion, she wondered if he understood.

“What do you think, Darling? Was I a silly little girl or what?”

She blushed like a schoolgirl, but somehow she didn’t mind. With Donald—that’s what she called him, though she didn’t know if he was male or female, or indeed, if he even had a gender—she felt safe and confident. Their relationship was by no means sexual. The magic they shared transcended such banalities, and she’d disavowed such unfulfilling pleasures long ago.

The transparent shimmer edged closer, the darkening light of the sky swimming before her eyes like an ocean in miniature, and her breath caught in her throat.

Time slowed. Stretched. Stopped.

No matter how many times Donald tried to communicate with her, no matter how frequent the effort had become over the course of their long and passionate love affair, it was something she would never get used to.

He reached out, and the air above her shoulder wavered. Her eyes glazed, and the world around her disappeared.

All-consuming darkness. Then, a moment later, a blinding flash of light. The world shattered into a kaleidoscopic cyclone of colors for which her mind could assign no names.

Then slowly, as if requiring considerable effort, the disjoint visions condensed into a comprehensible whole.

An ocean. Not water—not, in fact, matter of any kind—but an ocean nonetheless. And within, both a part of the ocean and not, a vast and timeless consciousness.

And Donald, no longer an invisible ripple of light, but a radiant Goliath, an entire cosmos of thought, dwarfed only by the endless ocean that surrounded him.

Pain, sharp and stinging. Without explanation, the ocean cast Donald out like a disease. Cut off from the vine that had once given him life, he began to shrivel, and the light inside his soul began to dim.

Then a girl, a tiny soul, chained to a feeble body of flesh and bone. Yet what she lacked in power, she more than made up for in love. She beheld Donald—whose nature couldn’t have been more foreign to her own—at first with curiosity, then acceptance, then at last affection.

Donald marveled at this resplendent creature, whose brilliance lit his gray and dismal world like a torch, and as she matured, as her mind and body grew to match the ageless wisdom in her soul, they gave themselves to each other in love.

The vision faded first to darkness, then back to the moon and the twilit sky of the beach.

Tears streamed down the sides of Jackie’s face. Donald had never told her the heartbreaking story of his origins, nor of how her love had saved him.

“I love you too,” she whispered.

They sat together until the sky turned black, then headed home.

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