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Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, late May 2015


I find one favorite story in each of the publications reviewed this time.

Publications Reviewed


Beneath Ceaseless Skies #173-174, May 2015

There’s no obvious connection between the stories in Issue #173; both stories in #174, the better issue, are set on rivers bordering an otherland. I note an interesting contrast between these two tales: in one, the rules are of ultimate importance; the other is all about breaking them.

#173

“Out of the Rose Hills” by Marissa Lingen

Tirene, with her bodyguard Yelen, has ridden across the cloying rose hills to the city that is either Balfer or nameless, on a mission to hire mercenaries to support her family in their local civil conflict. Once there, they find a shadow woman following them, who contradicts everything they say, insisting that Tirene is a princess.

If ever in her life someone was going to mistake her for a princess, today should not be the day. And yet she had the sudden urge to lie, to tell them yes, absolutely, she was the princess, she was the princess foretold, anything, as long as they would come back with her through the rose hills and help.

The shadow woman is a pest, but what Tirene dreads most is riding back home through the roses. Yet it must be done; she has come for no other reason.

A quirky story that plays off some fairytale tropes in the person of the shadow woman, particularly suggesting an inversion in which a princess comes through the wall of roses to rescue some enchanted princes. Of course this, like everything the shadow says, is a lie, but it’s a sufficient reminder of how many tales involve roses, despite the fact that this is no fairy tale, and particularly how lethal they can be. I’m not especially fond of roses, but it’s not for the scent, it’s the thorns. Even with my most protective leather gloves, the things bite through. So I’m wondering just how these two adventurers manage to cross the rose hills without the legs of their horses being shredded to bone in the process. And whether the hills are there to keep travelers out of the city, or to keep the inhabitants in.

“The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto” by Bill Powell

Yes, in the form of an operetta script, as I discern the burlesque affect of Gilbert and Sullivan.

SONG–VILLAGERS
(emphatic, even thumping)
VILLAGER 1: What’s all this? How remiss! What a social abyss!
  Our enamoured inventor in ignorant bliss!
VILLAGERS: A momentous event he has managed to miss!
  We’ll ensure he remains here as we reminisce.
VILLAGER 1: For in this very place, from the reaches of Space,
  We have coolly conferred with an alien race!
VILLAGERS: Yes, in this very place, with a grin on our face,
  We have cravenly cringed to an alien race.

In which Our Hero, Whitlock, being dismissed on the grounds of lateness from his position of tutor to the young lady he loves, decides to invent a time machine. Romantic comedy of errors ensues, complete with time travel paradoxing and crazy aliens. Exceedingly silly, with a difference.

#174

“Two to Leave” by Yoon Ha Lee

I’m always happy to see another example of this author’s elegant, measured prose. The piece here is a fantasy in which the mercenary narrator comes to a river bordering the parched lands, where the ferryman demands a toll: One to enter, two to leave.

I was no connoisseur of rivers, my main concern being whether I could pass them or not. But the waters sheened darkbright like a million rippling coins, melodies of light playing across the ripples. I was moved in spite of myself.

The payment demanded is in eyes, which is a common currency of the kind to which both the narrator and the ferryman belong. References to their thirst suggest a vampiric nature, but these are no clichés with cloak and fangs. What they have most in common is the transformation of their hearts into idiosyncratic weapons, crafted by the thirstsmith in the Forge Beneath the World. The narrator’s weapon is the Apiarist’s Gun; the nature of the ferryman’s weapon, and his mission, is part of the story’s mystery.

An original melding of several classic fantastic tropes, perhaps the strongest being the ferryman, a figure of ancient myth. But the heart of the story is the relationship that develops between the two deadly characters.

Among my people, the exchanging of hearts is very literal, and true reciprocity is rare. The old stories are full of fools who disarm themselves only to find their regard unreturned.

Delightfully done.

–RECOMMENDED

“The Warriors, the Mothers, the Drowned” by Kay Chronister

A journey-through-the-underworld tale, the underworld here being Mictlan, the Aztec land of the dead. We have Ana carrying her daughter Sylvie to escape death, although it’s not quite clear whether the baby is actually still alive. They are followed by a nagual, a shapeshifter in the form of a coyote taking the role of the ferryman and psychopomp, insisting that Sylvie belongs among the dead. Ana, of course, refuses to give her up; she believes that if she manages to cross to the other side of the deadlands, the child will be saved.

The coyote smiles open-mouthed. Here is a game he knows how to win. He trots ahead, dragging a tail of thorn and goldenrod, then waits at the riverside for them to climb astride his back. He is a towering creature—his head comes to her chest—but somehow they both mount comfortably, Ana and her baby, swinging bare legs over his hoary sides. When he swims across the river and Ana is submerged up to her chest she feels coldness but not wet.

The story is a kind of mythic mashup, just as Ana’s heritage contains both Aztec and Catholic elements, with the coyote being the mystery character. In Aztec tradition, the psychopomp is a dog, but this nagual appears not to be a real coyote nor a real shapeshifter; more than anything, he seems to be a sort of god. As the title reminds us, in this mythos there are two distinct realms of the dead, and the one designated for warriors and women dying in childbirth is a much better place—heaven as contrasted to purgatory or hell. While Ana didn’t die in childbirth, somehow, the coyote insists, she doesn’t belong in the same deathland as her daughter; it’s not quite clear why, but it doesn’t really matter if Sylvie can’t go there too. Characters in fiction and myth often view themselves as exceptions to the rules, which is what this one is largely about.


Tor.com, May 2015

Including the last-posted story from April, the better piece of the independent adult fictions, relatively thin on the ground this month.

“Ambiguity Machines: An Examination” by Vandana Singh

The frame here seems science-fictional, with reference to a “Conceptual Machine-Space”, but within are three linked stories that can only be called fantastic, in which the concepts of circuitry and spellcasting blur into each other, and time loses linearity. It’s a mystery that compels individuals to follow it wherever it might lead. It could be said to begin in medieval Timbuktu, where a fantastic device had been first created, then concealed in the desert. Or perhaps in Italy, where the tiles paving the courtyard of an old church were decorated in a fantastic pattern, and one of them had been split in half. Or in the Gobi, where an engineer compelled to make a war machine for his captors finds the missing half of the tile.

It was inlaid with a pattern of great beauty and delicacy, picked out in black and cream on the gray background. An idea for the complex circuit he had been struggling to configure suddenly came together in his mind. Setting aside the tile, he returned to work. At last the machine was done, and tomorrow he would die.

Or it could be said to be the spirit uniting the individuals who encounter the design, a deep yearning for connection with others.

It’s lovely, mysteriously fantastic stuff, but I must say that I don’t care for the frame, in which students are urged to discover Significance in the individual accounts of the design. That there is significance to be found here is undeniable, but I don’t really think readers require reference to “the Compendium of Machine Anomalies, the Hephaestian Mysteries, and the Yantric Oracle” in order to discover it in themselves.

“Elephants and Corpses” by Kameron Hurley

Nev is a body mercenary, which means that in the course of his work he inhabits corpses that he purchases on the docks, if they’re not too far gone. Thus his skills include those of an undertaker, to preserve the goods and keep them in good condition until ready for use.

A body mercenary without a good stash of bodies was a dead body mercenary. He knew it as well as anyone. He’d found himself bleeding out alone in a field without a crop of bodies to jump to before, and he didn’t want to do it again. Every body merc’s worst nightmare: death with no possibility of rebirth.

This time, however, there’s a different kind of trouble, as an armed gang bursts into his workroom to steal the body he’s just purchased. It seems the corpse is a member of a religious cult, and incidentally his assistant’s sister. Now they’ve burned his workshop and gratuitously murdered his pet elephant, as well. Tera wants her sister’s body; Nev wants revenge for Falid.

Nice action-adventure premise, but the author has other things in mind, like psychoanalyzing Nev, which doesn’t work too well, because we don’t see why Nev has become what he is, alienated from other people. She also throws in a bit of sexual dysphoria, noting that Nev’s birth body was a woman’s. Did he take up body-jumping as a way to alter this? We don’t know, can only speculate. Is it a metaphor for transsexuality? That seems to be in here somewhere. A serious discussion about the immortality of the soul? Or maybe all of the above, hiding under the guise of a lite action piece.


Analog, July/August 2015

Following last month’s thousandth-anniversary issue, this time we have a double, featuring the first installment of a serial from the former editor, Stanley Schmidt. For me, the highlight is the novella from Adam-Troy Castro. Otherwise, the ToC has a very long list of very short stories.

“Sleeping Dogs” by Adam-Troy Castro

A psychological thriller, tense and edgy as a tight-wire crossing. The setting, which we see in the well-crafted opening scene, is a paradisiacal oceanic world where Draiken has come to retire and escape from his past working for the kind of agency that doesn’t trust its operatives wanting to quit. He’s adapted well to the place when an informant passes on the news that outworlders have come to town. Draiken recognizes the man who presided over his torture, decades ago, and attacks, certain they have sought him out at last. But the man insists his presence on the world is only a coincidence, that his former employers have entirely forgotten about Draiken and no one is hunting him. Draiken doesn’t believe it. He can’t afford to believe it or trust the promise of safety. And there are other outworlders hanging around town.

Here is a neatly constructed psychological trap. Draiken, we come to see, has been damaged by his experiences, living so long as a predator in an ocean full of predators and prey.

. . . the shape, more sensed than seen, continues to glide on past, and he belatedly recognizes it what it is: a bladderfish, essentially a big gas-filled balloon, big and round and mindless and no good for any purpose human beings know: not as food and not as bait and not even as a threat to be avoided. It is the illusion of danger, nothing more.

It is, he realizes decades too late, the very life he has lived on Greeve, personified by a creature with the brains of a sponge.

We also see, as he confronts this latest threat, that he’s getting old, can no longer swim as far or dive as deep as he once could. Now, at the end, he is faced with a choice: to believe at last that he’s safe, that he can now afford to make lasting human relationships and give up his constant life on the run. Or not. Or take another alternative. I must admit that when I finally see the choice he makes, I want to say, No! But this isn’t a flaw in the story; it’s a rational conclusion given the man that Draiken has become.

[I do have to wonder what passes for editorial oversight these days when I see phrases like: “the schools of silvery needlefish, traveling in schools so dense that light cannot be discerned in the spaces between them”. The story deserves better attention.]

–RECOMMENDED

“The Smell of Blood and Thunder” by Liz J Andersen

We’re informed by the opening infodump that the narrator is a veterinarian with a history of treating alien creatures for something called the Federation of Intelligent Life, although readers of the previous pieces in this series would already be aware of the fact. It seems this time that someone has unwisely created giant smartfleas. For some reason, the narrator regards this as an opportunity, since she has to figure out how to deal with the fleas, which now have the protection of being a sentient species. In short, a ridiculous premise, made even more so when she singlehandedly wrestles a bloodthirsty flea into submission. Fleas are remarkably strong organisms and this scene right away snaps the thread on my suspension of disbelief. I also wonder what happened to its exoskeleton, but not enough to call for an explanation, which I fear might be forthcoming.

The thought that there is an ongoing series of these things is quite depressing.

“The Tarn” by Rob Chilson

Opening a story to find a character named Gensifer Quat doesn’t do much to develop my confidence in it. This character is the arbiter of a town called Firkle Fountain, where the inhabitants have suddenly gone rushing off to investigate rumors of a treasure to be found at the bottom of Taunder Pond, which they explain to him in a patois that punctuates its sentences with “heh” or “ha”, and that about exhausts my patience. It is of course humor, and actually acquires some funniness toward the end, with the best line being, “I’m from the government in Zhuzianti. I’m here to help.” It’s also quite definitely fantasy, despite references to some fabled high-tech past in which the government takes an interest, due to the possibility of high-tech weapons.

“Breakfast in Bed” by Ian Watson

Max and his girlfriend Sandra are both on the geekish side, so they often have geekish discussions on such subjects as Max’s theory that the universe is only a high-order simulation. In the middle of one night, he suddenly finds himself touching Sandra with his hand under the cover of the duvet instead of on top of it—a shift in reality to which most people would probably pay little attention, but for Max, it inspires a flood of geekish speculation.

“It’s in undertime. Undertime has a different geometry to ordinary time. As it were! Instead of undertime having analogies to depth and width and length, it has energy or mass, same thing—and width and length. Of course this can only be expressed mathematically. But where does math come from? Does math preexist the Universe? Does math emerge from the Universe as the cosmos evolves during its very first microseconds? Or is math entirely invented by ourselves? Hypothetical armless aliens might have developed different math.”

Thus is born science fiction, and other weird things. A wild mental carnival ride. I like Max and Sandra, I hope they land safely, somewhere/when. And I like their crumb tray.

“Potential Side Effects May Include” by Marissa Lingen & Alec Austin

Regina is taking part in a clinical trial of an antianxiety brain implant. It takes some fine tuning, such as when her mother calls, but in general it seems like a good idea. Where can I sign up?

“In the Mix” by Arlan Andrews, Sr

Not so much a story as a premise: no one communicates with the written word anymore, it’s all video and direct emotion in the Mix. Sounds familiar.

“Guns Don’t Kill People” by Jacob A Boyd

Lurlene is a smartgun in a future with detailed bureaucratic oversight on her use.

She couldn’t not send a report. The Expansion satellite remained in orbit. It’d know her trigger was pulled. She had to file a report soon after, or submit to a deconstruction dispatch for insubordination.

But within these constraints, she possesses a certain amount of free will and autonomous judgment.

This is a bit much, but I find the situation in which she finds herself even more artificial.

“Pincushion Pete” by Ian Creasey

Pete is the founder and director of the Campaign Against Intellectual Discrimination. He likes the work and is devoted to the cause, as in his youth he had been of subnormal intelligence and suffered from discrimination before gene therapy patches boosted his abilities. Unfortunately, critics have gained access to his brain scan to show how many patches he’s downloaded, and they’re now accusing him of being a shill for the gene therapy industry. Bad publicity. His Board of Directors suggests he may be addicted to patches; they press him to take a leave of absence, during which he knows they will make changes he isn’t going to like.

An interesting premise, and I liked the twist at the conclusion.

“Tumbling Dice” by Ron Collins

Jupiter Kelly is a professional gambler, not a particularly successful one, who meets his true soulmate when Kaatji walks into the casino. Or rather, that’s how he sees her, but so does everyone else. This turns out to be Kaatji’s burden, and she has a plan to lift it, but the plan requires money.

She was going to change herself, was going to fix things, she was going to find something in the very molecular structure of her being she could tweak to make her stop releasing this wavefront of pheromones, or to stop creating this electric field from her nervous system, or whatever other thing the doctors said might be firing her constant come-hither beacon.

So far, what she’s accomplished gives her the ability to manipulate the dice. And Jupe knows that she’s switched the dice on him, knows she means to take his money, and he doesn’t care.

This is a love story, questioning whether two people can create true love from false premises. The thing is, I don’t care. Because both of them, especially Kaatji, prove to be ruthless manipulators who’ll sell out their own side for reasons purely selfish. If the casino goons catch up with this pair, my eyes will be dry. What I can’t quite figure, though, is whether this is what the author had in mind, or whether he thinks we should overlook the corruption in these too-well-matched hearts. But he seems pretty dismissive of the harm they’ve caused.

“Dreams of Spanish Gold” by Bond Elam

Seeing a beautiful young woman standing at the edge of the sea, an AI realizes he doesn’t know what it means to be human. It proves a disillusioning experience. The account is effectively done, but the metamorphosis is improbable. I also find it unconvincing that the AI would regard itself as “he” and suffer from some of the usual dysfunctions and jealousies of that sex. What the story means is that it doesn’t know what it means to be a man.

“Ashfall” by Edd Vick & Manny Frishberg

Emma and her family are itinerant beekeepers who deploy both hives of natural bees and robot bees to pollinate orchards and crops. A nearby volcanic explosion coats everything with ash, threatening to kill the natural bees, but some fortuitous programming saves the day. A typical SF problem story.

“Delivery” by Bud Sparhawk

An automated order/delivery service. Amazon should eat its heart out.

“The Narrative of More” by Tom Greene

One of those stories that open after they end in disaster, being fragments from the log of a “Fateful Mission” to a planet inhabited by a devolved human population with no social instinct or altruism.

Every one of them is suffering from what, in a normal population of Terranoids, would be diagnosed as any of several varieties of clinical depression and anxiety disorders. This appears to be their natural state. The outward calmness of their expressionless faces and bodies hides the fact that each of them lives in a continual purgatory of terror, uncertainty, and sadness.

The narrator, alone on this world, first attempts to reform them, then to discover the reason for the devolution. This is less a story than a fictional essay on human nature. The narrator deplores the possibility that this population might spread into the wider universe but seems quite OK with the ur-population of humanity doing so.


Asimov’s, July 2015

A very short number of longer stories in this zine, a distribution I always regard as promising, but this time my favorite is the shortest.

“Pollen from a Future Harvest” by Derek Künsken

The editorial blurb informs us that this one is related to a fine and fascinating previous story with a similar theme of alien life cycles and time travel. There are deep mysteries here. While Major Okonkwo audits the Expeditionary Force and the pollen problem, readers will be trying to make out the complex future universe in which the major lives and works. It’s a dense narrative, and the author doesn’t disclose information until he’s ready to do so.

So first of all, we have a human expansion into space that has discovered pre-existing wormholes; the states that control them are now great powers. The Sub-Saharan Union is a subject state of the Venusian Congregate, but it’s a restive subject. On a covert expedition into another territory, it’s discovered a world with a previously undiscovered pair of wormholes—a cosmic anomaly.

These double gates were small ovals, only a dozen meters wide and half that high, partially embedded in the ice of the planet. They were not only locked together, but unevenly so, like two picture frames hanging on the same hook. And they did not reach back and forth across space, but led from one to another in one direction only, backward in time by eleven years.

The Union immediately seizes this opportunity of controlling time travel to rebel from the Congregate and become an independent power. Officers on the Expeditionary Force suspected of loyalty to the Congregate have been arrested and held in detention while the Union forces consolidate their power and attempt to learn how to control the wormholes to allow transmission of information through time.

The nameless world happens to be occupied by another species that the humans call vegetable intelligences; these entities have already gained a measure of control over the paired wormholes. Individuals release their pollen on the future side, and eleven years later, it arrives where individuals are waiting to be fertilized. Pollen, of course, is a medium of encoding information. When the Union discovers that the flow of pollen from the future has suddenly ceased, they realize some disaster will have occurred. At the same time, a senior auditor has died on the world, and his wife, who is Major Okonkwo, is now dispatched with unlimited clearance to investigate the situation. Okonkwo hopes that in the course of her duties, she will learn what happened to her husband, whom she suspects was murdered. But was his death related to the problem of the wormholes? To the Union’s rebellion?

Auditors reacted to coincidences exactly opposite to the way scientists did. To a scientist, a coincidence meant nothing unless proven otherwise. To an auditor, a coincidence meant everything until proven otherwise. And she was swimming in coincidences.

Swimming indeed. Okonkwo and her auditing team uncover information at a rate that suggests attempting to drink from a firehose. There is the science of wormholes and time paradoxes, there are the botanical mysteries of the vegetable intelligences, and there is politics on multiple levels, with betrayals within betrayals. There is the disturbing possibility that the Expeditionary Force will have committed genocide on the vegetable lifeforms. And yes, there is the murder of Okonkwo’s husband, a subtle assassination. And a multitude of suspects, witnesses and red herrings. She unravels the knot in the end, but as a reader I sort of have to take her word for most of it, because of the density of the narrative. I would say, in fact, compressed, as if this were a novel’s worth of idea put through a compactor. I found the reading worthwhile, but it was a hard push through. The story would have befitted by greater length, giving its many ideas and characters more room to breathe and grow.

“Like Native Things” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Tilda works for the military, head of a program that allows human controllers to take over animal minds through wetware patches.

That, really, was the secret to riding animals; if you understood their urges, you could manipulate them. A carefully managed animal could often be given a task that they would complete on their own, and that allowed you to ride more than one animal.

Or rather, it allowed Tilda to ride more than one. For most people and most situations, one animal took all the rider’s attention.

Through an elaborate ruse, a group of terrorist saboteurs take over her animals to attack a power station, and Tilda is the only one who can stop them.

It’s an interesting premise for a thriller, but I have to say the plotting comes pretty pat, with the enemy having more than its fair share of well-laid plans and the luck to keep them from gang agley.

“The Great Pan American Airship Mystery, Or, Why I Murdered Robert Benchley” by David Gerrold

An alternate history based on the premise of abundant, cheap helium, so that the disasters attending hydrogen craft never came to pass. Accordingly, we find ourselves in 1937 aboard the great American airship Liberty, beginning its maiden cross-country voyage with a balloon full of celebrities. Everything is first-class.

The sheer size of those glass walls made it feel as if we were not within a vessel, but simply drifting along on an airy platform, as removed from the mundane cares of the world as the gods of Olympus—well, we were—but the sense of a heavenly condition was deliberate.We floated gracefully across the sky, trailing a massive shadow that traversed the ground below, a visible reminder of the Liberty’s astonishing size.

The narrator is an aspiring journalist now working as a steward to gather material on the famous and notorious of the day, which doesn’t include Hugo Gernsback, although he is present as an opportunity for the author’s in-jokes. Indeed, the voyage is mainly concerned with name-dropping the celebrities, of whom the narrator is most interested in the writers of the Algonquin Round Table, as they drink themselves across the continent and amuse themselves plotting a murder mystery onboard an airship, in which a steward is proposed in the role of the killer.

This would be a nostalgia piece for an era with celebrities and no Facebook or cell phones, except I wonder how many readers will know who these people once were. Robert Benchley? Who he? I don’t recall them personally myself, and the author is about my age, but I do remember the shadows of their reputations as in the form of New Yorker caricatures, lasting into the 1950s. Long shadows. The author does a pretty good job recreating this scene, known for its cleverness and wit, but often pickled in the alcohol of failure. Other than the fictional and speculative mystery scenario, there is no real plot, just a glitzy stage.

“Acres of Perhaps” by Will Ludwigsen

Back in the 1960s, Barry was a writer for a weird and obscure TV show—low-budget fantastic stuff three or four dimensions out from The Twilight Zone. But he wasn’t the lead writer. That was a guy named David Findley, and Barry was just the guy who brought his imagination back to the set on Earth. Truth is, Barry was jealous of David—of his imagination and of the fact that he had a gorgeous, devoted wife whom David had left to become a screenwriter in Hollywood while Barry had to keep his own love in the closet. One day on the set a strange group of backwoods types showed up with Melody, David’s wife, having tracked him down to bring him back home. And David, when drunk enough, told a story that came right out of one of his scripts: that while looking for the moonshiners who sold him some bad stuff, he fell into a dark hole in an old stump.

“I fell for a long, long time—so long that I had dreams. The vibration of cold whispers on my ears. The tremble of fingers up and down my arms. Something with claws combing over my scalp. I smelled oceans from other places, imagined music played with water and leaves.”

Ever since, he’s believed he is now on the other side of that hole.

The story is Barry’s, not just in the sense of his being the narrator but because it’s about the way his encounter with David changed his life, as it changed David’s. In part, it’s a story of love, but in greater part it’s about the creativity that makes a writer. Despite this, there’s a light humorous tone, with a lot of stuff about the business of being a writer in the TV business. With the fantastic aspect, there’s ambiguity. Barry doesn’t at first believe David’s tall tale, but later, he starts to have doubts. Even if we reject it, the story is at least meta-fantastic because of the subject matter of the TV show.

“Petroglyph Man” by Rudy Rucker

Julio and Beatriz are trying to salvage their marriage on vacation in the cheaper part of Hawaii. Beatriz has boned up on volcanic rocks and ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, and Julio takes photos with the new app he works for; it modifies the photos in reaction to the user’s mood. But it turns out that taking a photo of the petroglyphs isn’t such a good idea.

A numbness percolated up Julio’s arm and into his head. It was like the Benthos app had ported itself into his brain. Installing itself as a low-level quantum computation. And now Julio was seeing through the Benthos app all the time. The petroglyphs were jiggling. Laughing at him.

I like the tight weave of this piece, with all the story elements working together. Like the Benthos app, the setting is full of elements that might turn sinister, depending on point of view. This isn’t a predictable author, and readers are likely to be apprehensive that sinister will turn into horror. I must say that Julio seems to be working harder at this marriage thing than Beatriz.

–RECOMMENDED

Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.


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