The Echo Project - part 3

Tycho moved cautiously, half-crouching to make himself less visible. In the deepening twilight, the other Rogues were shadowy shapes in the scrubby undergrowth, their passage marked by soft rustling of the native plants as they moved. All six wore black TIE pilot uniforms; the helmets they carried in backpacks made them into strangely hunchbacked creatures in the dim light. The fern-trees ahead began to thin as they reached the edge of the fernwood, and Tycho could see the glow of artifical light beyond.

Wedge reached the edge of the treeline and knelt down. Tycho and the others gathered around him. Corran and Heikki both had fair skin which could be picked out in the gloom. Ghazal’s dusky brown skin and black hair meant that only the whites of her eyes were showed up much. Ooryl’s grey-green skin made him almost invisible; just the glitter of his large compound eyes revealed his presence. Ghazal slipped off her backpack and pulled a sneaker cape from a side pocket. Tycho glanced across at Wedge, who was examining the ground ahead. He was alert, but in spite of his controlled expression, Tycho sensed that he was extremely tense inside.

It was something Tycho had noticed more and more in the last week as they prepared for the infiltration of the Pomezia Corporation base on Galdo. Wedge had planned the mission, worked out the logistics, practised in the Defender sims and briefed the squadron with his usual ability. But all the time he seemed slightly withdrawn: his conversations were brief and to the point, he made less eye contact than usual and his posture and movements betrayed some inner stress. Most of the other squadron members had picked up on it too, and unit morale had sagged a little in spite of Wes’ increased flow of bad jokes.

But now, half the squadron was outside the base where the Echo ships were based. They had arrived on planet in ones and twos earlier in the day, by regular shuttle flights from the next system, passing Immigration with false IDs provided by Intel. Heikki, one of the less well-known faces, had hired a repulsorvan, which they had used to drive out into the country, leaving it concealed in the fern woods about a mile from the Pomezia Corp base.The rest of the Rogues had left the Redemption in a nearby system and jumped to this one in their X-wings, and were now waiting behind Galdo’s outer neighbour, a dry, frozen planet that was largely uninhabited. They were only a few minutes’ flight away, ready to provide backup to the infiltration team when they flew out in the stolen Echo ships.

Ghazal wriggled into the sneaker cape, which was really a loose-fitting one-piece, and drew up the hood, pulling flaps around so it concealed almost all her face except for her eyes. She slipped on a pair of night crawler goggles, and sank down on to her belly. Carefully, she left the cover of the tree ferns and began to wriggle across the open ground between the fernwood and the compound perimeter. Micro scanners built into the cloak scanned the surroundings and the liquid crystal mesh woven into the fabric changed in colour and pattern so the cloak and wearer blended in. Insulation also built into the fabric prevented Ghazal from showing up on infra-red sensors. The goggles had a matt outer surface, hiding her eyes, while also enhancing her night vision. They had IR sensors, range finder and a zoom lens built in too.

Not that any of the Rogues really needed the night crawler goggles to see the obstacles ahead. There was 100 meters of more open ground between the edge of the fernwood and the three meter high electrosteel fence that surrounded the base. A security droid patrolled on the inner side of the fence, walking back and forth an irregular number of steps in each direction, so anyone approaching never knew for sure when it would change direction. Local laws on light polluction meant no permanent floodlights around the perimeter, but there was lighting around the buildings, and floodlights ready for emergencies.

Ghazal made her way slowly across the open ground. Her home planet, Tirrix, had been governed for many years by a dictatorship sympathetic to the Empire. Naturally, a resistance movement had grown up and Ghazal had been a part of it from her early teens, until the dictatorship had been overthrown a couple of years ago. Her commando skills had contributed towards her selection for Rogue Squadron, and were proving their use now. The open ground was covered with knee-high coarse grass, with clumps of longer grasses and patches of a long-stemmed, spiky shrub. Every time the droid moved away from her, she crawled a few meters further on, dropping down and freezing in place when it turned.

The other Rogues waited in silence as she crept to within a couple of meters of the fence. In the low light, Tycho could just barely pick her out, even though he knew where to look. The silvery security droid had visual sensors set more to the sides of its head, like a prey animal, to give it a wider field of vision than a human. Its blind spot was a narrow arc almost directly behind itself. Tycho held his breath as the droid passed Ghazal and walked away from her on its patrol. He estimated angles and distances, silently urging her to get her timing right.

“Now,” whispered Corran under his breath.

As he spoke, Ghazal rose to a kneeling position and quickly aimed a wide-mouthed pistol as the retreating droid. Tycho saw a dim blue flash as she fired, and then the ion mine hit the droid. The quickest way of dealing with a droid was to shoot it with an ion beam. However, if Ghazal had tried to fire an ion beam through the electrosteel fence, the beam would have lit up the charged fence, and not penetrated. The small ion mine only discharged when it hit and stuck to its target. Blue energy crackled over the droid, which threw its arms out, flailing as it staggered around. It took a couple of aimless steps then fell and lay jerking at random until the mine was fully discharged. The brilliant blue energy died away and the droid lay still, leaving just a smell of ozone in the night air.

Wedge was the first to rise, leading the other Rogues as they hurried across the open ground to the fence.

“Good work,” he said to Ghazal.

“Thank you, sir.” She had slipped off the cloak and goggles, and stuffed them back into the backpack that Ooryl handed her.

Heikki and Corran were unloading equipment from their own backpacks. Working together smoothly, they attached the bypass clamps to the electrosteel fence and joined them with cables. With the bypass circuit complete, Wedge produced a small beam tool and cut a hole in the fence. A quick shove pushed the cut section free, and the Rogues climbed through safely. Staying close, blasters in hand, they jogged across to the distinctively shaped TIE hangar on the east of the compound.

The Rogues halted by a personnel door set to one side of the main vehicle doors. Corran jogged to one end of the building and Ghazal to the other, to keep lookout while Heikki began slicing the keypad. Tycho, Wedge and Ooryl stood around him in a semi-circle, facing outwards with their blasters drawn. With his free hand, Tycho got out a small receiver and set it to scan through the local channels.

“Minimal comm traffic,” he reported quietly. He held the scanner to his ear and listened for a moment. “Just someone wanting to know why Bran is taking so long to fetch the caf.”

He kept the scanner to his ear and turned to glance at Heikki. The fair-haired pilot had pried the front of the keypad off and was poking probes into the wiring behind, a look of fierce conentration on his pleasant face. A soft noise of alarm brought Tycho round to look in Ghazal’s direction. She was right by the corner of the hangar, crouching low as she waited. The dark shape of a human guard appeared, walking a normal patrol. Ghazal exploded upwards before he noticed her so low down. She struck with her bare hands and the guard folded, with an explosive grunt that Tycho could hear. Ghazal struck again before the guard had the chance to draw breath, her attack precise and skilled. The guard simply folded and lay motionless on the ground.

“Heikki ?” Wedge’s voice was low and urgent.

“Just got to switch the data lines,” Heikki replied, rapidly plugging and unplugging wires.

“Ooryl, help Ghazal bring him here,” Wedge ordered as he gestured for Corran to rejoin them.

Ooryl ran to join Ghazal and helped the slender woman carry the unconscious guard to the hangar door.

“Done !” said Heikki triumphantly as Corran arrived at a jog. The door slid open silently, spilling out a soft glow of light from within the hangar.

Wedge waved them through, waiting for Ghazal and Ooryl to arrive before he followed them through into the hangar. An entire squadron of Defenders was neatly arrayed in the centre of the bay, facing the main vehicle entrance.

Heikki let out a low whistle. “Those trips look mean enough in the sims, but a whole squad up close in front of you…wow.”

Tycho knew what he meant. The TIE Defender, known to New Republic pilots as ‘trips’ on account of its triple solar arrays, was a mean looking starfighter. The solar arrays were spaced evenly around the spherical cockpit, largely enclosing it. It had the same pointed wings as the Interceptor, but each set of panels formed an outward curve, instead of the inward curve of the Interceptor. The half-dozen angular ends of solar arrays pointing forward gave the Defender the bristling look of a clawed foot when viewed head on. It was a fast, agile, powerful craft, every bit as mean as it looked.

Ooryl and Ghazal quickly bound the limp guard, removing his comlink and his blaster.

“We’d better start on liberating these,” Corran said, glancing about at the fighters. “We don’t know how long it’ll take us to get through any security and have them ready to fly.” He glanced over at Wedge, expecting a gesture of confirmation from his commander.

Wedge stayed still, his eyes fixed on the machines lined in front of him. Tycho realized he was holding his breath as he waited for Wedge to act. At last, Wedge looked around at the other Rogues. He looked to Tycho like a wild creature caught in a trap. His jaw clenched tight as he met Tycho’s gaze. Wedge swallowed and then shook his head abruptly.

“It’s a trap,” he said sharply.

“I’m sure it’s a trap,” Wedge went on, his voice decisive. “Like you said, Tycho, this mission is heavily based on what Intel think and believe, not on data they know.” He strode briskly to the nearest Defender. “Getting in here wasn’t easy but it should have been harder. There should be more security on a base with top-secret new tech.”

“You think this hangar’s a trap ?” Corran asked, looked up at the ceiling in search of security cameras or hidden weapons.

“No.” Wedge popped open one of the maintenance hatches on the Defender’s cockpit. “This place is too big and they wouldn’t be able to take us out without damaging the trips too. And there’s the risk that some of us might be able to escape in the trips.”

“They want us to steal trips that they’ve sabotaged,” Tycho reasoned, joining Wedge as he hunted through the Defenders hard systems inside the hatch.

The others moved up close too, alert and ready for action.

“Then they will lose some Defenders, whether they are destroyed here, or when we take them,” Ooryl said.

“They could have bombs set to go off when we meet up with the rest of the squadron,” Ghazal suggested. “Or when we rendevouz with the Redemption. That way, each trip sacrificed will do more damage.”

“Ah.” Wedge pulled his head out of the hatch. “Found it.” He held a grey box nested in a tangle of wiring. He could lift it into view, but there wasn’t enough length on the wires to let him bring it out of the maintenance hatch.

The other Rogues crowded round to peer at it.

“It’s hardwired into the Defender’s systems,” Tycho said. “It’ll go off when you press some button, like the hyperdrive, or when the sensors feed it some information.”

“And there’s enough explosive there to make a mess of this fighter and anything flying in formation with it,” Corran added.

Ooryl and Ghazal had pulled back to keep scanning the hangar.

“How long will it take to remove them ?” Ghazal asked, facing away from the others as she turned her head from side to side, in search of danger.

“Too long,” Wedge answered tightly. “None of us are demolitions experts and we don’t know what kind of booby traps there are.” He carefully set the grey box back inside the Defender’s innards.”

“It would be risky…” Corran said thoughtfully. “But we can…”

Wedge shook his head. “One person would have to try on their own first, because if they got it wrong, that way we’d only lose one of us. We don’t have the time for that kind of trial and error, and I’m not losing any of you now,” he added fiercely. He took a deep breath, and turned to look at the far side of the hangar. “There’ll be other ships on the base; a shuttle probably. We’ll take that.”

As Wedge walked away from the fighter, a siren began to shriek. Tycho instinctively glanced about, looking for secuity guards or a scanner that might have picked them up. Wedge broke into a run, his expression grim. The other Rogues followed, blasters out and ready for trouble. Wedge led them to a large internal door at the rear of the hangar. Tycho frowned at the red light showing on the keypad; it would take them valuable time to get through. As Heikki was fishing a probe from one of his pockets, Wedge raised his blaster and fired at the wall just above the keypad. There was a flash and sparks; everything on the keypad lit up briefly as the door hissed and slid open a few inches then stopped. Ooryl was the first to grab the edge of the door with his three fingered hands and start pulling it open wider.

“Design fault of that model,” Wedge said briefly. “Hit the circuit in the right place and you get a feedback overload that unlocks the door and puts a power surge through the hydros before overloading them.” He slipped through the gap and out of the hangar.

The door led into a utility corridor, with walls and floor finished alike with plain ferrocrete. The lighting was harsh and bright, the plainness of the corridor broken only by security doors, directional and warning signs, and statutory fire fighting and emergency equipment fixed at set intervals. The Rogues entered at a jog, the thudding of their boots carrying in the hard, echoing space.

“Where will the shuttlebay be ?” Corran wondered, looking at the line of doors and the intersections ahead.

“Should be this way,” Wedge replied.

He led them on at a steady run, Tycho running slightly behind his left shoulder while the others followed. Tycho glanced across at his friend as they went. Wedge’s face was tense, but he’d lost that uncertaincy Tycho had seen recently. The old, familiar intensity was in his eyes, his whole being concentrating on potential dangers as they ran through the enemy’s base, with the siren wailing.

They were some 20 meters from an junction when Tycho thought he heard the thudding of boots from somewhere heard. Wedge also caught the sound, hard to distinguish from their own echoing footsteps, and raised his blaster. Moments later, the first security guards came pounding around the corner from the righthand corridor at the junction. The Rogues weren’t turning; their guns were already pointing in the right direction. All six of them fired, the air in the corridor sizzling with blaster bolts. The two guards in the lead dropped, one of them screaming as he curled up clutching a belly wound. The ones behind them sprayed fire back down the corridor as they retreated back round the corner.

The Rogues scattered, Wedge, Ooryl and Heikki diving towards the right wall, while Tycho, Ghazal and Corran flattened themselves against the left. Tycho looked about and saw that thankfully, none of them were hurt. The Rogues and the guards exchanged a few shots, with no hits made by either side. Tycho’s group were at less of an acute angle to the corridor where the guards sheltered, and one blaster bolt hit the wall just a few inches above his head, making him flinch.

Two guards pushed the muzzles of their blasters around the corner and fired blindly. Using their cover, another man crawled out far enough to grab the ankle of the injured man and start hauling him back into shelter. Wedge crouched, getting lower than the blind shots coming his way, and aimed. A single shot ended the rescuer’s efforts and he slumped to the floor. The guards ceased their covering fire and retreated around the corner.

Tycho looked across the corridor to Wedge. “We need to keep moving,” he said, pitching his voice loud enough to be heard above the sirens, but not so loud the guards could readily hear him.

Wedge nodded; with his free hand, he dug a small sphere from one of his flightsuit pockets and held it up. “Flash,” he called, and held it ready to throw to Tycho. Tycho holstered his blaster and cupped his hands, ready to receive it. Wedge lobbed the grenade carefully across and Tycho caught it neatly. He glided forward a couple of steps to give himself a better angle into the cross corridor, pressed down the two switches simultaneously, and threw the flash grenade. He watched just long enough to be sure it was going into the guards’ corridor as he wanted, then he turned away, closing his eyes, and clasped his hands over his ears.

The flash grenade exploded with a sonic boom. Even with his eyes closed and the grenade detonating around the corner, Tycho saw the brilliant flash as it went off. Unless they were very quick witted and lucky, the guards would be temporarily deafened and blinded. Within seconds of the detonation, Tycho was looking around and blinking in a effort to dispel the coloured shapes that floated in front of his eyes. The noise of the alarms was more muffled than before, but he heard Wedge urging them to start moving again.

Tycho glanced into the side corridor as they ran past. The surviving five security guards were helpless, shaking their heads, stumbling about or crouched on the floor, their expressions dazed. The Rogues jumped the bodies of the fallen and left them all behind. They passed doors labelled as storage bays and a smaller door leading to an office. Wedge paused briefly at the next junction, getting his bearings, then turned left. No one spoke, saving their breath for running. Another hundred meters and Wedge turned right into a short corridor that ended in a large blast door, typical of hangars. The light on the keypad was green. Wedge slapped the door open button with his free hand, and the blast door whisked aside.

This hangar was much more crowded than the other. Crates and barrels were stacked around the walls, the floor was filled with a variety of vehicles and there was a distinct smell of heavy lubricant and fuel in the air. Tycho was relieved to see the raised wings of a Lambda shuttle visible on the far side of a nearby heavy cargo skiff.

“Over there !” Wedge gestured to it and increased his pace.

The Rogues sprinted for the shuttle, rounding the bow of the travel-worn cargo skiff. As they came in sight of the shuttle, a side-door in the wall of the hangar opened and a dozen security guides charged in, blasters firing. Those first snatched shots went wild, giving the Rogues a chance to fire back some of their own as they dived for cover. A personnel carrier had been parked up close to the skiff, and the Rogues dived behind it. Tycho found himself between Wedge and Ghazal, all of the humans gasping for breath as they crouched behind the metal vehicle and recovered briefly. Ooryl didn’t respire in the same way, so didn’t need to take deep breaths.

“Anyone hurt ?” Wedge demanded, his eyes sweeping his squad.

Everyone shook their heads, even Ooryl, who had learnt the human gesture. Corran popped his head up over the central spine of the carrier to get a glimpse of the guards. Two blaster bolts seared past his hair as he ducked back.

“They’re in cover behind some component crates,” he reported.

“Keep them there,” Wedge ordered, looking at Corran, Ooryl, Ghazal and Heikki.

The pilots began shooting, mixing blind shots with random pop ups from their different places behind the carrier. Fire came back, some bolts thudding into the body of the carrier, while others passed overhead and to the sides, leaving score marks on the skiff or the floor. Tycho and Wedge turned to study the shuttle. Tycho estimated it to be about twenty meters from their current position –twenty meters of open space, with no cover available. The crates the guards were sheltering behind were at one end of that space, giving them an excellent line of fire at anyone trying to cross between the two vehicles.

“Unless you’ve got any more flash grenades tucked away, we can’t make it,” Tycho said, looking at Wedge.

Wedge’s jaw tightened as he assessed choices. “No more grenades,” he said grimly. “It has to be the shuttle. I can’t see any other space worthy vehicles in here that will take all of us.” He turned to look at the cargo skiff. “Maybe we could use that to…” His voice trailed off.

Tycho looked too and saw that the driver’s control board had had the fascia removed, and loose wires were hanging out, waiting for the repair to be finished. “Sithspawn,” he said quietly.

Wedge was studying the shuttle again. “Hatch is locked, but I can get it open, maybe fifteen seconds,” he calculated. “Just a couple of seconds to sprint from here to there.”

“That dozen guards can get off more than twenty shots in just the time it would take you to reach the shuttle, Wedge,” Tycho said fiercely. He knew the bright look of determination that shone in Wedge’s eyes, and knew how hard it was to get him to change his mind in that state. “It would be suicide, and we’d be still stuck here, but without our commanding officer.”

Wedge looked at him. “You commanded the Rogues for eight years, Tycho. You don’t need me.”

“We need every blaster and every set of brains we’ve got to get out of this,” Tycho told him. “You can’t throw your life away.”

Wedge’s face became more stubborn. “I brought you here,” he said passionately. “I have to get you out and the shuttle’s our only chance. Give me enough covering fire and I stand a fair chance.”

“A fair chance isn’t good enough,” Tycho insisted. “We’ve got to think of something else.”

“I can improve the odds,” Corran said. He holstered his blaster and unclipped the lightsaber from his belt. “With covering fire, I should be able to handle any shots coming our way.”

“That reduces the odds from suicidal to highly dangerous,” Tycho said.

Corran grinned. “Never tell a Corellian the odds,” he quipped.

Wedge looked uncertainly at the lightsaber for a few moments, then nodded decisively. “We’ll do it.” He switched his gaze to Tycho. “I want heavy covering fire from you all just before we start our run. Keep it up as best you can.”

“We wouldn’t do anything else,” Tycho said honestly.

“No, you wouldn’t,” Wedge said, almost to himself. He flashed a brief smile and touched Tycho on the arm. “Good luck.” He turned away before Tycho had time to answer and crouched, ready to sprint. “Ready.”

Corran crouched too, and activated his lightsaber with its characteristic snap-hiss. “Ready,” he echoed.

Tycho took a deep breath and glanced at the three beside him. Any fear was held at bay by the determination to succeed. “On my mark, we all start firing,” he ordered. Tightening his grip on his blaster, he took a moment to batten down the fear he felt for his friends, then called “Mark !” and popped up to pour fire at the security guards.

Heikki, Ghazal and Ooryl straightened up at the same time, firing as fast as they could. Ooryl had the blaster he’d taken from the security guard in the hangar, and was firing that at the same time as his own. Wedge and Corran raced out from their cover, angling towards the shuttle's hatch. The air was hot with blaster fire and the smell of rapidly fired blasters. The guards initially ducked back behind their increasingly blaster-scored crates. After a few moments, some blind shots came back, and the guards furthest away leaned around the far end of the crates to shoot at Wedge and Corran.

They were behind Tycho's position, but he could hear the thrum of Corran’s lightsaber and saw some blaster bolts deflected back at the guards. As he fired, he saw that one of the crates was beginning to crack from the repeated shots hitting it.

“Second crate from the right,” he called, concentrating his fire on it.

The others followed his example as best they could, while bobbing and weaving to prevent the guards getting an aimed shot at them. Blaster bolts were coming their way, and Tycho was increasingly grateful for the solidity of the personnel carrier they sheltered behind. The surface of the crate they were shooting darkened under the repeated blaster fire, then it suddenly cracked open. The components inside blew up, scattering pieces outwards like shrapnel. The guards behind that crate fell, and their neighbours recoiled, crying out in pain.

With almost half the enemy injured or distracted, Tycho took a moment to duck back and look at Wedge and Corran. They had reached the shuttle hatch. Wedge was urgently working on the lock, pressing series of numbers into the keypad. Corran was standing between him and the guards, the silver-white blade of his lightsaber whirling as he caught and deflected blaster bolts. There were still four or five guards shooting at him, and a few bolts slipped past as he valiantly blocked as many as possible. As Tycho watched, the light on the hatch keypad turned green, and the hatch slid open, the ramp starting to expand downwards. Tycho felt a sudden rush of adrenaline at the sight.

It inspired the remaining security guards to redouble their efforts. The barrage of bolts directed towards the shuttle visibly increased.

“Go, go, go !” Tycho yelled, gesturing to the shuttle.

They sprinted for it, firing as they went. Wedge had turned and was firing back at the guards while Corran kept up his defence with the humming lightsaber. Blaster bolts slashed through the air in both directions and Tycho felt his skin prickle as he ran. Then he saw Wedge jerk and collapse, dropping his blaster as he fell beside the ramp. Tycho stifled a cry, finding yet more speed to cover the last few meters. He heard an exclamation from Corran, and from the corner of his eye saw the Jedi gesture with one hand. The guards screamed, and their firing ceased.

Tycho arrived by Wedge’s side at the same time as Ooryl. As Heikki and Ghazal sprinted up the ramp, Tycho and Ooryl lifted Wedge between them. He was limp in their grasp as they carried him aboard the shuttle, Corran following with his lightsaber ready in defence. They carried Wedge to the space behind the rows of seats and gently laid him on the floor of the shuttle. Ghazal had already gone to the cockpit and was firing up the engines; Ooryl went forward to take the co-pilot’s seat. Tycho bent over Wedge as Heikki frantically pulled items from the shuttle’s standard emergency aid locker.

“Wedge !” he called desperately.

Wedge opened his eyes, struggling to focus on Tycho’s face. The blaster bolt had hit him in the chest, just to the left of his sternum. He was fighting to breathe, his body trembling spasmodically. His face was white with shock; his dark eyes large.

As Corran covered Wedge's lower half with a thermal blanket, Tycho tried to reassure his old friend.

“Hang on. We’re on the shuttle. There’s first aid equipment and we’re on our way to the Redemption.”

Heikki pressed an Anti-Shok hypo against Wedge’s neck and delivered a dose of the drug.

“Ben…benz,” Wedge struggled to get the word out.

“Rest,” Tycho told him, one hand on Wedge’s shoulder. “Save your strength,” he pleaded.

“Benzalko.” The word came out of Wedge in a rush. With that, his eyes closed and his head rolled limply to one side.

“No !” Tycho cried as Wedge shuddered, his desperate breaths seeming louder than the engines as the shuttle took off.

As Heikki placed the oxygen mask over Wedge’s face, the breaths quietened abruptly, hesitated, and stopped. Tycho expected Heikki to bring over the resuscitation equipment, but instead he held a scanner over Wedge’s chest. He passed it back and forth as the trembling stopped and Wedge became still and limp. Corran cried out involuntarily, a sound of despair. Heikki studied the scanner’s monitor, then slowly shook his head. He lowered the scanner and sat back.

Tycho blinked at him, feeling numb. “We’ll be on the Redemption in half an hour. You’ve got to revive him, keep his brain oxygenated until he reaches a medbay.”

Heikki shook his head again and turned the scanner so Tycho could see the monitor. “The blaster bolt went right through his heart. Massive blood loss through the wound. He…he bled to death, internally. Even if I could replace the blood he’s lost, his heart’s so badly damaged it can't pump any blood around, and this shuttle doesn’t have a heart pump. I can’t do anything !” he finished with a frustrated cry.

It had happened so swiftly that Tycho could barely believe it. Wedge was dead.

Tycho closed his eyes, feeling a lead weight settle in his belly. Nothing would be the same again.

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