NOTE: This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Click here to read part one of Dreams of Fire and Glass.
Almost submerged in the bathtub lay a shape. It had a head, two arms and legs, but at that point the resemblance to humanity ended. Its bulbous eyes and thick lips suggested batrachian ancestry, while the gills on each side of its neck suggested a few fish in the family tree. I couldn’t tell whether its green, silvery skin had scales, but it looked rubbery and shone in the low bathroom light, so I assumed its surface to be smooth. My washcloth lay across its face as it reclined in the water. If anything, it looked like a stressed-out man trying to relax after a hard day. I cleared my throat loudly, but the creature didn’t seem to react, so I decided to take my chances and speak. If I were more of a man of action, I might have pulled out a baseball bat or some sort of weapon, but brutal self-awareness told me that was a very bad idea. It was time to play to my strength.
“Have a rough day, dear?” I tried to force levity I didn’t feel into my hoarse voice. “Want me to rub your back?”
The creature sat up with a splash, the washcloth falling from its face, and turned to look at me. Its thick, round eyes widened and blinked several times – its pupils were long vertical wedges – and its mouth dropped open to reveal rows of thin, spine-like teeth.
“HOOAAARRROOOONK,” it screamed, and began thrashing around in the bath ineffectually. “RAAAUGHN-FLUI HA EHKA FA!”
“Whoa, hold on, fella,” I said, putting out my hands. “Don’t panic.”
“HEARA HOFEN KA, PTAHLIS!” The creature ignored my pleas. It looked more scared of me than I was of it. While it flailed in understandable panic–after all, I probably looked as strange to it as it did to me, and I had barged in on its bath–I felt as if I were in a dream, detached, overwhelmed by the sheer fact of the creature before me.
“Look, obviously something weird is happening,” I said. “Just calm down, and we can figure out how to get you home.” I looked back into the apartment and saw the paper-covered walls pulsing as a sickly greenish light filled the room. “Or get me home, as the case may be.” I forgot all about the apparently terrified creature in my bathtub and walked into my room. My computer was glitching; mathematical symbols and letters in an unknown language floated on the screen, arranging and rearranging at a dizzying speed. The layers of paper on my wall were pulsing slowly and wheezing, as if the room were breathing. In the corners, a strange luminescent lichen was growing in thick disks, and deep within myself, a part of me screamed in recognition.
I have seen this before, I thought. But where?
As I stood, reeling at the warped reality my room had become, some part of me whispered, too much, and made me fall to the bed. I pulled my knees up to my chest and began to shiver. Before me, I saw the twitching collection of eyes, which had stopped their mad rolling to stare at me, and I could see the confusion and terror I felt mirrored in each of them. In the bathroom, I heard more splashing, then the horrific squelching sound of rubbery, webbed feet hitting the tiles. As I gazed at the eyes in my collage, first one closed, then another, then they all fell shut, their eyelashes overlapping to suggest more symbols in a language I couldn’t recognize.
“Good idea,” I said and closed my eyes. In the blackness behind my lids I saw a swirling depth and felt myself fall.
Bizarrely, I slept.
The room I found myself in was dark, but in the manner of dreams, I knew somehow that darkness was better. A single window hung in the far wall, and I could see the moon, nearly full, and as its light filled my eyes, I saw it was moving far too quickly.
The Earth is small tonight, I thought.
The square of light moved down my legs and across the floor. It fell upon a foot, deformed and twisted, its toes turned inwards and ankle stretched, so that it resembled a soft hoof. As the light spread and worked its way up from the foot to the leg, a voice came out of the darkness that I had never heard outside of online voice-chat.
“As we look into the old, we become the old, and the old becomes the new.”
“Sabrina?” I asked. “Is that you?”
“The dreams you weave, oh engineer, the spires of twisted minarets and beasts stalking the fields. The hunters in the shadows wait, wait, wait listening; all we need do is give the word. Great, shapeless things, and things with shapes we cannot know. Lurking beyond our horizons and dreaming, always dreaming.”
“Sab?” I suddenly felt a great urge to go to her, to kiss her, to push myself upon her again and again. “Are you okay?”
The light crept up her legs, which seemed oddly bent, and splashed across her thighs.
“The spaces between speak of endless, enormous paroxysms of madness and joy. Endlessly writhing, twisting through spasms of ‘is’ and ‘is not’.”
I found my body walking toward her, and I fought it, forcing my legs to stop by will alone. Lust rose in my body, and fear sharpened it, forcing me to stumble toward her even while I was repulsed.
“I see!” she said. “Great dancers at the end of time, nay, outside of time, finding their way home. Great shapes moving beyond the spiral arms of our galaxy, throwing shadows over the world, making their places ready. The great bear hangs by its tail in the sky and the demon eye is ascendant.”
The light made its way up her naked belly and chest. Her arms, elongated and hideously stretched down the length of her body, sat balanced, elbows on knees, holding something.
“The beauty, the beauty!” Sabrina sang out. “Entrances to hidden gulfs, the lights, the eyes…THE EYES!”
The light reached her hands and revealed a doll made of pale canvas cloth. Its button eyes and sewed-on mouth seemed to be widened in a scream.
“The end, the end, the end is in the in-between, Jason. The crossroads.” It was the first time she had said my name, and the sound of it in her sing-song chant made my body cold and damp. “The below, the above, the beside…these places hid the truth. But now the truth is revealed in fire and glass.”
Sabrina’s hands twisted in the moonlight, pulling the arms of the doll. Her fingers were thick, folded together, and encrusted with layers of flaking skin.
“We always knew they were there, just beyond the horizon,” she continued to croon. “We made tales of gods and angels, devils and demons, to give a face to that knowledge.”
One arm of the doll stretched, then suddenly came away from the body. A thick, viscous fluid flowed from its torn arm, and the room filled with the smell of copper.
“We made up stories to explain what we felt of their presence,” she said, her tone shifting, becoming casual, almost conspiratorial. “But nothing we could imagine told the truth.”
Her hands continued to tear apart the doll, shredding its remaining arm, its legs, and its head apart till finally only the torso remained, and she squeezed and squeezed and squeezed as it oozed thick, red fluid. Finally, she dropped the remains of the doll, and they fell wetly to the floor. I felt the lust within me rise to spasm, and the coppery smell became delicious as it tickled long-dormant neurons. I stumbled forward – another step toward her – and saw the light passing toward her face.
“The long-hidden will be revealed, the ancient spires of that great city will rise above the waves, and lust and love and fury shall rule the land.” Her body began to writhe and twist. “Ah, it hurts,” she gasped with what seemed like pleasure.
As the light reached her face, a final spasm wracked her twisted form. I felt a sharp, hollow pain within my chest and back, like heat and pain and tingling pleasure all at once, and fell to the ground. A sudden vision of Sabrina filled my mind, and I saw her galloping down the alley beside my building, her lengthened arms and twisted legs working in fierce harmony, her face warped into a parody of her old features. Her rapturous eyes, pulled into slits, shone with a hideous glee, and thin, almost non-existent lips revealed long, gritted teeth that strained the jaws housing them. She rocked back and forth as she galloped until, in a single, fluid motion, she turned on me and reared, those twisted jaws opening wide, drool glistening on the jagged teeth. The pain in my torso became unbearable, and I squeezed my eyes closed, denying it and everything else, but even then I could still hear Sabrina’s joyful galloping.
I woke to my phone vibrating its way across my desk. I quickly reached over to grab it. The caller ID said “Josh”. I tapped the key to send it to voicemail and looked around my room cautiously. The walls had ceased to breath, the eyes were still, and the glowing, green lichen was gone. I stood up and checked my computer and the bathroom, finding the alien computations and bathtub visitor gone as well. Had it been a dream? Maybe I’d fallen asleep earlier than I thought and had simply dreamed that I had fallen asleep. The contents of the dream could be chalked up to playing too much Fire and Glass and chatting with Sabrina.
Chuckling at the notion of a recursive dream, I sat down at the computer and opened my internet browser. While the window opened and my email disgorged its daily spam, I reached over and tapped my phone to listen to Josh’s message. The speaker buzzed as I opened Google Reader to check out the headlines.
“Hey man, it’s Josh. Henry and some of the others helped me grind my character a few levels, and we’re talking about going after the King in Yellow tonight. You in?”
I scanned down the articles pulled from my favorite gaming blogs. It looked like the game was doing well; the population was rising fast. It was estimated that soon the total people playing would hit over two billion. The other games had become ghost-towns, with even the most hardcore players switching to Fire and Glass.
“I’m at work, so I can’t check in-game, but can you see if you can find Sabrina? She’s not answering her phone, and we need to know if she is coming to the raid tonight. We need her heals.”
Switching from industry blogs to normal news, I saw the overall swell in violence was continuing. Analysts were stumped as to what was causing it, and various groups, from environmentalists to evangelical Christians, had put forth theories ranging from global warming to the apocalypse. I chuckled to myself while scanning the transcript of a televangelist blaming the increase in violent crimes on gay marriage. A senator blamed it on the increased violence in political rhetoric, while, of course, a parent’s advocacy group blamed it on video games.
“Anyway, I gotta go, man. People here are being crazy today. It’s like half of them are walking around in a daze, the other half want to kill each other. I’ll see you in-game. Laters.”
I opened Fire and Glass in another window and checked to see if Sabrina was in-game. She wasn’t. I opened my instant messenger, and it said ‘Idle 6 hours 28 minutes’ next to her screen-name. I closed the game and went back to reading the day’s blogs. I switched from news to my ‘local’ list: blogs that were about things happening in San Francisco.
LOCAL ARTIST MISSING, SOUGHT FOR QUESTIONING IN MURDER
I clicked the link and was taken to SFGate.com.
(SAN FRANCISCO) LAUREN TATE, 23, WAS FOUND MURDERED AND MUTILATED IN HER MARKET STREET APARTMENT EARLIER TODAY. POLICE ARE SEEKING HER ROOMMATE, SABRINA HSUEH, 25, A FREELANCE DIGITAL ARTIST AND THE COMPUTER GRAPHICS DEVELOPER RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FAMOUSLY SUCCESSFUL ‘FIRE AND GLASS’, THE ONLINE GAME THAT HAS TAKEN THE WORLD BY STORM. HSUEH, WHOSE WORK HAS NOW BECOME HIGHLY SOUGHT AFTER, HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS ‘RECLUSIVE’ AND A ‘HOMEBODY’ BY NEIGHBORS AND FRIENDS, LEADING THE POLICE TO BELIEVE HER EXTENDED DISAPPEARANCE IS CONNECTED TO THE MURDER OF HER ROOMMATE. “WE DON’T KNOW IF SHE WAS KIDNAPPED OR WAS SOMEHOW INVOLVED IN THIS BRUTAL KILLING,” SAID SFPD DETECTIVE MIKE SPENCER. “BUT WE DO BELIEVE THAT FINDING MISS HSUEH WILL BE NECESSARY TO BRINGING MISS TATE’S KILLER TO JUSTICE.” POLICE ARE ASKING ANYONE WHO KNOWS ANYTHING ABOUT THE CASE OR KNOWS THE LOCATION OF SABRINA HSUEH TO PLEASE CALL THE SAN FRANCISCO POLICE DEPARTMENT OR CONTACT THEM VIA THEIR WEBSITE, WWW.SF-POLICE.ORG.
Looks like we’re gonna need a new healer tonight, I thought. I sighed long and hard and went to our cult’s website. I quickly posted to the forum that Sabrina was missing, and that we needed a new high-level healer before tonight. Then I closed the browser and went to lie back down to take a nap before the raid. No one had ever fought the King in Yellow before. No one, including Sabrina, even knew what he looked like; the graphics had been supplied by the client, Nathan. We were going to be the first, and for all anyone knew, the zone leading up to him and the fight itself could take all night, or even days. I needed my rest.
I awoke, feeling refreshed, to a pinging on my computer. Voicemail; a message from Sabrina. I clicked ‘Play’. At first she was silent, and all I could hear was her breathing and a bit of static. In the background, I could hear dripping water.
“–and I found myself looking down from a great height. I could see everything, and it was all so small, and the rushing in my ears was deafening. My flight was through air and space and the place in between, and my breath was taken away by speed and suddenness. My eyes could feel the friction of the air against them, but then the friction was gone, and I opened my mouth so that I could taste the vacuum. Stars and lights–such lights as I had never imagined–flew past and with me. Further and further I flew, until I was taken past all stars, and into an utter blackness at the center of all things. There was no light, so far were we from the stars, but I felt it there, crouching, spinning, dancing, and I could hear the wailing of pipes all around, capering presences that I could feel leering at me as they played tunelessly. I had found it; after years of searching, I had found God, the ontological ground, the answer to the threat of non-being. And God was an idiot, amused by fools.”
I was puzzled. The narrative made little sense, and it sounded like Sabrina had started it in the middle. I clicked on my IM to see if she was on. ‘Idle 10 hours 56 minutes’.
“Then I flew past even that idiot god who dances at the center of time and space. I went out of the darkness and, though I saw no planet, was soon above a city, a city so glorious that it made my heart ache and tears flow down my face. Golden and beautiful, caught eternally in the moment of sunset. Walls of veined marble and temples to unknown gods tipped with spires of gold and lapis lazuli. Wide streets lined with delicate trees, and perfumed gardens housed flowers of a thousand varieties, each more beautiful than a mother’s face to her child, each blossom more delicate than a snowflake. It was here that I finally felt dread, for the city was never-ending. It went on endlessly in all directions, its amazing complexity and eternal beauty tempting the eye to look first here, then there, trying to take in each marvel. But I could see. I looked and looked and looked, and no one was there.”
I was becoming impatient with this. The raid was in half an hour, and I needed to prepare and organize the rest of the cult. Sabrina had obviously lost her mind, and for some reason, I was part of her fixation. I leaned back in my chair and saw it: standing in the bathroom doorway was the creature I had seen earlier. It was watching me intently, but showed none of its earlier panic. I stood up from the desk slowly, while the voicemail continued to play.
“The city was empty. Whatever amazing beings had built this immense place had either died or moved on. As I continued to fly, all that was below me was city, but soon I was out of air and in water. The cold filled me as I went deeper, and the pressure of miles of ocean bore down upon me. I crossed a ridge and saw another city, as impressive as the first, but covered with slime and small forests of colorless coral. The stone walls sealed the city completely, and a cavernous, open gate served as the only portal. As I approached, I saw the gate had dug a channel of settled slime and mud out of the ocean floor when it had opened, and nothing had yet settled in the wake of its passage.”
I slowly walked around my desk. The creature watched my approach attentively.
“I was compelled to go inside, to see this enormous city under the ocean. The doorway hung open, large enough to allow a fleet of whales, and as I passed through it, I shuddered to see scratches on the edges, as if something immense had just barely managed to squeeze its way through.”
I cautiously walked up to the creature, and we gazed at each other in silence.
“Within the city, ancient stone structures rose like mountains between long and incredibly wide streets. Strange symbols adorned pillars covered in slime. In the center was a pit; stuck in the mud within the pit, I could clearly make out first bones, then a skull.”
The creature and I locked eyes, and I opened my mouth to speak.
“But, despite the remains of their feasting, the city in the deeps was empty, too.”
I heard a click as the file ended and glanced over toward the computer reflexively. When I looked back, the creature was gone.
I walked back to the computer and saw it was time for the raid. Sitting down, I opened the game and logged into my main character. I quickly checked and saw everyone else was already online, so I put on my headset and jumped into cult-chat.
“What up, party people?”
“Dup?” Bobby said, coughing into his microphone. “Sorry. I meant ‘sup.”
“How’re you doing, man?” Josh’s voice was very quiet; I could barely hear it.
“Your microphone is really low, man. Turn it up,” I said.
“Sorry,” he said. “How’s that?”
“So how’s it going?” Josh asked again. “Did ya get my message?”
“It’s going good,” I said. “Just the usual. Axe-crazy chick cyber-stalking me, mild psychosis, the food place I order from doesn’t deliver this late, and I kind of want a beer.”
“I thought you didn’t drink,” Kevin said.
“After the last couple of days, I’m thinking of starting. And yes, Josh, I got your message, and sorry, no Sabrina.” I chuckled softly. “Not that she would be much good to us, if that voicemail was any indication.”
“She called you? What did she say? Did she kill that girl on the news?” Bobby asked.
“In order: yes, not much, I think she was on acid, and she didn’t say. Probably not.” I thought of the short, skinny girl I had seen in her profile picture. “Sabrina weighs like a buck-five, maybe a buck-ten soaking wet. She didn’t tear anyone to shreds.”
“Crazy. Well, I found another healer,” Josh said. “Say ‘hi’, Tim.”
“Hi, Tim,” said a voice I didn’t recognize, apparently belonging to Tim.
“’Sup,” I said. “So are we gonna do this thing, or what? Kevin, will you do the honors?”
“Teleporting us now,” Kevin said.
My character vanished from the screen, and a loading screen appeared. New graphics popped into existence: a pillar located in the very center of the game world. Carved into the sides were pads you stepped up onto in order to be teleported into the lair of the King in Yellow.
“Buff us up, new guy,” I said and cracked my knuckles. A series of small icons filled the top-right corner of my screen, symbolizing the spells that would protect and empower me in the coming battle. “Thank you. We ready?”
“Good to go,” Josh said.
“Cool. Let’s get in there.” I turned my character to face Tim’s and pointed at him. “Don’t get hit, new guy. I don’t feel like dying tonight.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll keep us all alive,” Tim said. “And the name’s Tim.”
“Sure it is,” I chuckled. “And I’ll even call you by that name…if we get through this. Nobody gets a name until they prove themselves.”
“Whatever,” Tim said, and his character turned, walked onto one of the teleportation portals, and vanished.
I followed. The monitor went black, but there was no loading screen. For a moment, I thought the game had frozen up, and I started to mentally list possible problems to check for in the source code. Suddenly, a room came into being. In it, a dark, beautiful young man, wearing a black suit and purple tie, sat at a large oak desk. He raised his hand, and as he waved me over, I could see the single, large amethyst ring.
“Please sit down, Jason,” Nathan Alhireth said.
“I–Mr. Alhireth–what’s going on here?” I said into my microphone. I walked my character over to the desk and used the sit command on the plush leather chair across from the dark man. My character sat down smoothly, and I looked at Nathan. “You’re the King in Yellow?”
“I wear no mask,” he said, smiling that awful smile.
“Not a cultured lad, eh? Ah well, one can’t have everything.” He opened a drawer and produced a cigarette. “Smoke?”
“Um–no thanks.” I looked around the room and at him. “The graphics in here are amazing.”
“Thank you. Dear Sabrina was annoyed that she couldn’t work on this bit, but I think it turned out very well.” He lit his cigarette with an elegant silver lighter and took in a lungful of smoke. “I especially like all of the little details.” He exhaled smoke as he talked, and I swore I could smell it in my room.
“Do you know where Sabrina is?” I was beginning to feel afraid. Something was very wrong here. At the same time, I felt languid, lazy, almost drugged. “The cops want to talk to her.”
“Of course I know where she is, dear boy.” He chuckled. “And I’m afraid the police are going to have other things to deal with.”
“And what’s that?”
“You haven’t guessed?” He frowned. “And here I had been told you were a genius, a prodigy, a veritable wunderkind. That will teach me to use hiring services.”
“Guessed at what is happening. What you created, you silly little boy.”
“The game?” I was confused. The fog in my mind was making it hard to understand what he said, and the sharp pain in my chest and back had returned. “The game?” I asked again.
“The game? Mr. Raene, you are far too modest! You didn’t make a game, you made a world. A new world.” He stood up from his desk and began to pace, occasionally pausing to take a deep drag from his cigarette. “A better world!” He looked over at me and chuckled. “You know, my superiors…they look down on me for this sort of thing. They don’t like me fraternizing.”
“With the coders?” I said, squinting. I thought the screen was beginning to blur, but looked away and realized it was my eyes that were the problem. Around me, the room was coming alive once again. The walls pulsated and heaved, sweating luminous slime, and the eyes in my collage danced around wildly.
“With humans. Or most four-dimensional beings, for that matter.” He laughed. “They think it’s beneath someone of my…stature, if you will, to play with his food.”
“You’re going to eat me?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A whine had started in my ears, like white noise in my head, and it was hard to pay attention to what he was saying.
“No, no.” He walked around and sat on the desk in front of me. “At least, not me personally. I have other uses for my little Harbingers.”
“What–” I gasped in pain. The sharp burning had spread into my arms and legs, and I felt a sudden compulsion to take off my clothes. I stood and staggered, my feet barely able to support me. Black metal t-shirt, black jeans, underwear, boots, and socks formed a pile next to the computer. As my feet and legs continued to burn, I leaned down onto the desk for support and saw the eyes in my collage focus on me. “What uses?”
“Yes, they look down on me,” he said, ignoring me. “But who other than someone who dealt with you little talking bags of meat would have figured out a way to use the Dreamlands as a shortcut?”
“Shortcut?” I was beginning to gasp from the pain now, and as the eyes stared at me, I saw cool amusement. A deep rage filled me. I ripped my headset from my ears and hobbled to the wall, weeping from the pain. I began to rip into the paper, expecting them to be real eyes, but the paper ripped and fell away normally, revealing another layer of paper, so I kept tearing and tearing, trying to make the eyes stop staring at me.
“And I couldn’t have done it without you, Jason!” He chuckled again. “I’m no slouch at science, either. I’ve forgotten more technology than your species has ever created. But to create a game like this, I required more than knowledge. I needed skill. I needed an artist. I needed you. Thanks to you and our little team working together, the stars are finally right!”
I continued to rip at the paper, but there was always another layer with another eye staring at me in flat amusement. Finally, I gave up, the pain in my feet and hands too much, and slouched against the wall. My hands had begun to twist, and a crust had started to spread over my knuckles. In the corner, the creature watched me with bulbous, black eyes, and I turned away from him in despair and pain. As I stumbled to the door of my apartment, I heard the dark man speak a final time and felt my gums shriek in agony as my teeth grew.
“Jason, did you know that when gaming, the human brain acts the same way as it does when it’s dreaming? Really, a quite remarkable fact.” He laughed as I managed to fumble the doorknob open with my shaking, burning hands. “As I have mentioned, I am especially fond of the details.”
The door opened, and I lurched into the hall. My arms were getting longer, and I could feel the joints cracking. Up and down my hallway, doors were opening, and people in various stages of transformation stumbled outside. Some, like me, were naked, and their arms were growing, their eyes narrowing, their hands and feet becoming hoof-like, but there was a great variety of metamorphoses in progress around me. A beautiful woman in a blue dress appeared to be turning into a plant, her cocoa skin hardening to bark, and her fingers and ears sprouting green shoots. An elderly man, his face lined with years of worry and regret, was slowly turning to living stone and growing what appeared to be wings to compliment his already prominent horns and claws. I heard a familiar voice and turned to see the fish-like face of the creature who stood in the door of my apartment, watching.
“Elehka kll-tha rotta,” he said calmly in a hoarse, croaking voice and pointed down the hall toward the stairs.
I made my way to the stairs slowly, as did most of the other residents. While there was much groaning, I heard no screams. We were all too exhausted to scream. As I took the first step down, I began to stumble and dropped my hands and elongated arms down to support me. Immediately, the pain in my feet and hands was gone, and I gasped in relief. I turned sideways and carefully walked downstairs on my hands and feet. My shoulders felt wider, and the posture quickly felt natural. I started to stand, to open the door to the street, but one of the other residents had beaten me to it. The door hung open, and I made my way outside.
The street was filled with changing people. Most wandered dazedly, moaning in pain or weeping silently. Others laughed so hard they kept retching up blood. Above us, the sky was purple, and a vortex of red lightning vomited winged beings into the San Francisco night. I looked over at the bridge; beyond it, a shambling monstrosity the glistening pink of newborn flesh made its slow way across the skyline, so large its head was concealed above the clouds. In the midst of this horror, I heard someone clearly say, “You need only turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood.”
I began to wander with the others in the vague direction of the bridge. I could feel no more pain, and elation rose within me, a love of my new form. I began to move faster, my arms and legs now familiar beneath me. I felt hope for the future and a warm sense of camaraderie with the others around me working their way into their new shapes. We were building a new world, and we were doing it together. I finally understood, and as I saw the twisted form of Sabrina turn the corner and join the procession, I called out a bestial greeting and began to gallop.
His fiction work has been used as the basis for the upcoming online game Ghostees!, published by BakedOn Entertainment, and his non-fiction work has previously been published in “Thinking Critically” (10th ed.), published by Cengage Learning, Inc./Nelson Education Ltd., and in “Critical Thinking, Thoughtful Writing” (5th ed.), also published by Cengage Learning, Inc./Nelson Education Ltd. He has been interviewed by Mashable, and maintains a strong social media presence online.
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