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Author Topic: EP359: Chasers  (Read 3798 times)
eytanz
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« on: August 24, 2012, 01:51:14 PM »

EP359: Chasers

By Scott W. Baker

Read by Mat Weller

Originally appeared in Triangulation anthology (2004)

---

Sebastian’s organs squeezed into his pelvis as he accelerated past point-one.  He had a good feeling this time.  This catch was going to be his.

He could see his objective ahead of him, the enormous Drifter-class colony ship Calypso barreling through space on her inertial journey from Earth to Terra III.  Since she carried no fuel for deceleration, Calypso would travel through space forever without Chasers like Sebastian.  It was the job of a Chaser to run down Drifters and fill their tanks.  The job had sounded easy when he signed with Mulligan Mining eight months ago.  But despite nine arrivals since then, Sebastian has not made one catch.

Calypso was a slow Drifter at a mere point-13 c.  Surely he could catch that.  His Skeeter was designed to reach point-2, faster and more maneuverable than any other company’s ships.  Yet what advantages Skeeters held in speed and agility they sacrificed in capacity.  Even if he caught the Drifter, it took a total of three Skeeters to fill her.

Sebastian ran a scan of Calypso.  Leonard was already docked.  That was too fast for him to have waited for the Drifter’s beacon; he must have taken his Skeeter out without confirmation a Drifter was coming in.  Lucky.  Blind patrols were expensive gambles, especially on a Chaser’s budget.  The exorbitant price of fuel on Earth was the primary reason Drifter-class colonizers dominated the colonization market, and a booming fuel industry made Terra III the most popular destination.  Like most things, it boiled down to money.


Listen to this week’s Escape Pod!
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Thunderscreech
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« Reply #1 on: August 25, 2012, 12:50:59 AM »

The scope of the science problems in this story left me unable to get into it.  Ships passing each other at greater than 1-2% the speed of light relative wouldn't be visible as recognizable shapes/colors streaking past.  The idea of a ship at .2+c 'drifting in' to dock with a .16c colony ship makes no sense either, and the basic geometry of the whole 'catch/refuel/turn drifter around and fly to colony world' idea beggars belief.  

I was left with the impression that the author hadn't grasped the fundamental truth of Douglas Adams's observations on just how big space is and consequently could not visualize how inhumanly fast and unforgiving any such environment would be at the relative speeds required for this narrative.

If the drifters had been ocean ships in the Gulfstream and the skeeters a fleet of utility boats based out of an island, this story may have made some sense, but here....  

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space." - DNA
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patriciomas
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« Reply #2 on: August 25, 2012, 10:19:09 AM »

Did not like. My big problem with it was that Wilde's decision made no sense. Why wouldn't he or his family sell all of the stock at some point in time before the price crashed? That is how they'd live off them, after all, just selling a little bit at a time instead of all at once. But no, becoming a suicide bomber was the only choice. Maybe Wilde was just a total idiot -- but such an idiot that he's willing to become a terrorist and blow himself up at the drop of the hat? I don't find that satisfying.

Also, "Moooove on" made me want to break something every time someone said it. Too damn cocky.
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matweller
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« Reply #3 on: August 25, 2012, 10:20:52 PM »

He didn't become a suicide bomber, he killed himself so that the second half of the bridge would be delayed as much as a lifetime, and the family could keep all of the assets and pretty much guarantee comfort for two generations. I'd be tempted to jump into the volcano if that option were on the table, and I'm much younger and not suicidal.
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InfiniteMonkey
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« Reply #4 on: August 25, 2012, 10:22:41 PM »

OOOOOOOOOOO Space opera!!! Ok, just spaceships... yay.

The story was a little familiar in the beginning (ships competing, new guy on the job) and then became the economic consequences story. Put me in mind of the end of things, like the Pony Express and the closing of the open range. But I agree with patriciomas's criticism that Wild probably had more than one way out. Though I'm not sure I'd classify him as a terrorist (which is a slippery term).
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Grumpoid
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« Reply #5 on: August 26, 2012, 07:26:17 AM »

A very political story, and kind of unpleasant because of it.

The main character is essentially passive. Why is this his story? What does he do, what does he decide? Not much, other than to go along with covering up Wild's choice. So this is actually Wild the Baby-Killer's story.

My interpretation is that Wild did not wilfully end his own life, but that in creating plausible deniability he had to take a mortal risk, and merely wound up on the wrong side of the percentages. Nothing as noble as self-sacrifice, just experimental incompetence.

Now I like an exploding spaceship as much as the next fan, but this is a thumbnail universe, and I cared more about the people in the drifter than the foul and selfish rocket-monkey that decides the share price of HIS company was worth more than the lives of the thousands of people he is sending to their inevitable doom. ( the story says, it's wasn't like he was killing them - I think it pretty much was, maybe not today or tomorrow, but the first day atmos-resyk packs up on an un-powered barge, out of reach of resupply, they're all dead. Still it's quite Machiavellian - when you move against your enemy make sure to kill all their children ("generation starship" sort of implies children - does what it says on the tin, as they say) because you don't want them growing up to be your enemies and coming back for your children.)

The story was written with all the enthusiasm of nineteen-fifties pulp, with as little regard to accuracy, or language. Plot holes wherever you look, unconvincing characters, unbelievable tech, rubbish physics.

And the "If you don't like it..." motif was (as already been mentioned) deeply irritating, the Mel Brooks term "Authentic frontier gibberish" springs to mind , but it got over the idea that this was a cut throat environment. And that for me was one of (many) reasons the story failed to convince. Survival in marginal environments is reliant on co-operation of groups. That kind of environment, any small group with that kind of attitude would be extinct in pretty short order.

That's all the neg stuff (not really, I could go on for more words than the original story - but to what end, the story was written 8 - 9 years ago, I'm reasonably hopeful the author will be writing better stuff now)

Did I enjoy it? - I think I did actually. A bit miserablist, but it's unusual to get SF so innocently from that end of the political spectrum. I'm happy I've got better stuff to read, but for ten minutes it passed the time - better than a poke with a broom-handle anyway
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Dem
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« Reply #6 on: August 26, 2012, 08:09:35 AM »

I'd have got mad at all those things too, if I hadn't been boiling at the stupidity of the Drifter captain. What kind of clueless numpty tells people she doesn't know about a development that will put them out of business AND that the designers are on board AND that it will all get going as soon as they reach their destination? I'll ignore the fact that she's an old, unattractive woman because stereotyping won't be the reason, will it? I like a bit of space opera myself but this seemed to be a few choir boys short of a chorus.

I did like the reading, though  Smiley
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Grumpoid
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« Reply #7 on: August 26, 2012, 10:48:40 AM »

... if I hadn't been boiling at the stupidity of the Drifter captain. What kind of clueless numpty tells people she doesn't know about a development that will put them out of business AND that the designers are on board AND that it will all get going as soon as they reach their destination? I'll ignore the fact that she's an old, unattractive woman because stereotyping won't be the reason, will it? I like a bit of space opera myself but this seemed to be a few choir boys short of a chorus.


seconded..

Or a more accurate representation of what I thought when I read that might be "Oh yes...and that too"
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Unblinking
Sir Postsalot
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« Reply #8 on: August 27, 2012, 08:38:03 AM »

it took me about half of this story to get a grasp of what the basic situation was.  Big lumps of exposition tend to suck, but this was a bit too far in the other direction. 

I wasn't bothered a lot by the scientific implausibility because I don't know much about space travel in that respect.

But the economic implausibility did bother me, why the corporations wouldn't have made a better, less wasteful, system for refueling.

And I find it hard to believe that the loose-lipped captain could be that incredibly stupid.  "Yeah, my passengers are pretty important.  They're going to make your entire career and way of life obsolete in just a few years.  Oh, keep going with that absolutely vital refueling that you're doing for me, will you?  Chop chop!"

Interesting ideas, and I think I liked it more than I disliked it, but there are enough plausibility problems that it was hard to say it was a solid LIKE.
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Ansible
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« Reply #9 on: August 27, 2012, 09:07:58 AM »

I see this as a parable of modern energy industry, may be reading too much into it but it feels like the same thing. Yes that kinda brakes down as an analogy because the acceleration system is a monopoly, but close enough.

You have a vastly inefficient monolithic system that benefits those working for it. It's inefficient by design, requiring large enough capital expenditures that individuals cannot hope to brake into the market. They are smart to give out stock a bonuses so the individuals are tied to the success of the industry.

Seems like redneck coal miners in Pennsylvania. Afraid that those dam windmills will take their jobs.

How is it that the guy feels like his family is threatened in 40 years time by his stock being worthless. By then his daughters are grown and have careers of their own. Why do people seem to think that will only be a ok if their children never need to work.

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matweller
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« Reply #10 on: August 27, 2012, 09:28:26 AM »

I'm not defending the story, I agree that there could have been some changes to strengthen it. I also must plead ignorance on the physics, so that didn't hamper my enjoyment. But I think some of the criticism has been a bit unfair and perhaps a idealistic...

My interpretation is that Wild did not wilfully end his own life, but that in creating plausible deniability he had to take a mortal risk, and merely wound up on the wrong side of the percentages. Nothing as noble as self-sacrifice, just experimental incompetence.

Of course he sacrificed himself, that's the only solution that lets him save the industry for multiple generations and lets his family retain the money. I agree that Sebastian should have been developed a lot more, and I think the total deference to the drifting generation ship was a bit impossibly callous, especially when one figures what the company on Earth would pay for the rescue and salvage. It seems to me that if two of the Skeeters fueled the ship, even if it wasn't able to fully stop it would be able to decelerate enough for others to catch up and finish the job rather than just waste the whole barge and people on it altogether. Perhaps there was a missed opportunity for the old man to swoop in and "save the day" only to find out in a closing scene fight with 'Bas that he had made them all obsolete by doing so, making the formerly heroic a pariah. Just a thought.

But do we really think a company that sponsored a Drifter would allow the success (and survival) of its investment to be dependent on that flimsy process?
...
Of course not, they would have installed their own line of support ensuring lowest possible costs.

Nothing personal, but you don't have to look far in our own world to see much larger examples of industries and governments with gross inefficiencies that last indefinitely. Here in the US we have an airline industry and an auto industry that would both be dead many times over without huge infusions of cash from the government, despite the fact that there are many other alternatives to both that would cost less. We also have a number of wars that are now over a decade old and staffed by 70-80% private contractors which cost 2 or 3 times what a volunteer army does, but are much easier to hide from the population. Wherever there is gross inefficiency, there is someone with an agenda and motive to perpetuate it. Business, like government does not tend towards efficiency, it tends towards growth and bloat then fervent (sometimes violent) defense of its system rather than update and eventual collapse -- it's the very definition of 'life cycle.'

I'd have got mad at all those things too, if I hadn't been boiling at the stupidity of the Drifter captain. What kind of clueless numpty tells people she doesn't know about a development that will put them out of business AND that the designers are on board AND that it will all get going as soon as they reach their destination?

I think this is the most valid non-physics related criticism so far. I chalked it up to someone on a generation ship not having the same social interactions in a lifetime as the average kid does in 2 weeks of high school, but it does seem that there would be HEAVY warnings from earth that the scientists should not be discussed before they are thawed. I guess also that someone with a limited social circle would be tempted to chat up anybody new. But I mean really, the guys were going to refuel the ship whether they knew what was on it or not. She could have just signed the contract and walked away and all was done
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lisavilisa
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« Reply #11 on: August 27, 2012, 11:56:14 AM »

How is it that the guy feels like his family is threatened in 40 years time by his stock being worthless. By then his daughters are grown and have careers of their own. Why do people seem to think that will only be a ok if their children never need to work.



Indeed, if I were him I'd tell those girls to get trained in physics, or whatever it is that new colony with it's new cash cow will need. If one energy industry fails you go into the next one.
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dragonsbreath
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« Reply #12 on: August 27, 2012, 01:06:26 PM »

I enjoyed the story up until the ending. It seemed to capture the logistics about space travel, including resources, financial investments and the laws of gravity and thermodynamics.

The ending ruined the story. It was an unreasonable thing to sacrifice one's life and perhaps endanger thousands of others because of change. I wonder if all the candle makers jumped off of bridges when they learned that Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. The story could have survived the ending if Wild's companions had honestly reported that the "accident" was intentional. Their failure in this regard, as alluded to in the story, was itself a criminal act.
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Oren
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« Reply #13 on: August 28, 2012, 11:58:50 PM »

I was enjoying this story, relative velocity problems aside, until it started to telegraph the ending. I saw the whole thing coming when the Captain described how their new set up would out-mode the Fuel Catcher industry. Once that happened, I was screaming in my head for Wild not to do what I knew he was going to do, or for the main character to get off his ass and do something about it.

This was both because the crime in question was so heinous, at best stranding these people on this cramped ship for the rest of their lives, and because it was completely unnecessary. Wild and Bass currently have the kind of information that Investors would kill for. Wild can just go and sell all his stock before the news breaks and make a killing. He could even invest in whatever companies are going to build the “receiving gate.” If the future of his daughters is really all he cares about, this should be a no brainer.

The problem only happens because the character is acting stupid, and that’s never a good sign.
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tpi
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« Reply #14 on: August 29, 2012, 09:52:22 AM »

There were extremely severe problems with relative velocities and distances. (If I understood correctly, the main character was supposed not only to see another space ship streaming past him at a speed difference of a significant portion of the light speed, but to see the COLOR of the passing space ship!?). That was so jarring that I missed a portion of the story as started to wonder if I hear what I thought I heard.
And the story supposes that I should feel sympathy for a terroristHuh
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Myrealana
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« Reply #15 on: August 30, 2012, 11:50:11 AM »

I liked it, right up until Wild decided to send a spaceship full of people off into oblivion so his kids wouldn't have to work for a living.

I mean seriously. The MC was right. It was going to take years for the catcher to be ready. Worst case scenario, they have to get jobs instead of living off his bonuses for the rest of their lives.

Even better, all Wild had to do was go home, sell off all his stock right away and move his investments. It was going to be six months before the ship reached Earth 3, and in the mean time, only Wild and Sebastian have this insider information and they could make a killing.

A stupid man who did a selfish thing and left thousands of people to who knows what fate because he was too greedy and short-sighted to accept new technology - and Sebastian is as guilty as Wild for not reporting the truth.

Thumbs down for a story that left me yelling at my iPod even more than most political speeches.
« Last Edit: August 30, 2012, 11:52:45 AM by Myrealana » Logged

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benjaminjb
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« Reply #16 on: August 30, 2012, 12:08:20 PM »

My thoughts:

It's a shame that this story didn't entertain me more: the characters aren't particularly interesting, the narrator doesn't really experience much conflict, the main conflict/dilemma occurs off-stage (in Wild's mind), and the characters' decisions don't really make that much sense, on top of questions of the physics. It's like when you read "The Cold Equations" and then start to think about it later: he only carries enough fuel with no safety margin?, he has to toss the little girl out instead of the door that he walks through?, etc.

And I say it's a shame because I think there's an interesting premise here, kind of like Twain in Connecticut Yankee: progress means loss, which may be the specific tragedy of capitalism & technology (new technology creates new opportunities, destroys old opportunities), but may just be the more general human condition of mortality.

My reaction to other comments:

There's a lot of commentary here that assumes we're supposed to be feel some sympathy for Wild, but I'm not sure I see that in the story. Which maybe explains why we get this story through the naive kid rather than through Wild's experience or some other experienced Chaser. (Still, more conflict might be interesting.)

And there's going to be some dictionary-reaching arguments about whether he's a terrorist, which is a loaded term which I think we can put to bed here: terrorism is usually directed towards some political or ideological end-point and requires media attention (as Don DeLillo and William Gibson both note). What Wild is engaged in is crime, with an economic edge, and it only works without media attention. He's more like a vulture capitalist bending the rules--the guy who buys substandard material from one of his companies. Also, while some commenters here suggest that he should look at the big picture and just sell off his shares while they're still valuable, there's a term for that: that's called insider trading and all it does is pass off the loss to some other poor schlub with a family to support.
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Cutter McKay
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« Reply #17 on: August 30, 2012, 04:13:49 PM »

The one thing I liked about this story was that it didn't take the obvious ending, which would have been Wild running (or sneaking) through the Colony ship to find the scientists and pull the plug on them. As soon as the stupid captain spelled out the refueling economy's doom it seemed like the story might head in that direction. I was pleased when Sebastian called Wild out on that idea,
Quote from: Scott Baker
“What are you saying?  You aren’t planning to defrost anyone?”
“No, Bas,” Wild said, a little too calmly.
And I enjoyed the rivalry between the Skeeter pilots and the bus driver.

I think that's about the extent of what I liked. The physics issues have been covered, as has the selfishness and absurdity of Wild's final actions. Better alive and poor than dead and rich, in my opinion; and I would bet that Wild's wife and daughters would agree.

My biggest beef with this story, which has been touched on a bit, was the weakness of the protagonist. This is obviously Wild's story, not Sebastian's, and personally, I don't mind having someone's story told from someone else's POV, sometimes it's necessary. But that doesn't excuse the author from making the POV character at least somewhat interesting. Sebastian is not interesting, nor is he anything positive, in my opinion.

He is slow-witted, as he loses the first sale to Harold. He is cowardly, as he hides from all the other pilots for a month out of embarrassment. He's unskilled, as is shown many times by his poor piloting. And in the end, he's unscrupulous as he lies to cover up probably the largest criminal event this colony has seen, at the cost of untold amounts of money and probably lives. You could say that he is at least loyal for covering for Wild, but since he hardly knew the man, I think his participation in this heinous crime is unbelievable at best. It's not like he and Wild were blood-brothers or anything. Would Sebastian really risk everything he has, little as that may be, for this man he barely knows? If so, I think we could add gullible and senseless to the list.

And then there's the fact that he spent the majority of the story reacting rather than acting. Never a strong course of action for any main character. In all, Sebastian fell completely flat for me and killed the story.

Oh, and the crazy and intense character's name being "Wild", was a bit hokey to me.
« Last Edit: August 30, 2012, 04:16:30 PM by Cutter McKay » Logged

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flashedarling
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« Reply #18 on: August 31, 2012, 08:12:31 AM »

I'd have got mad at all those things too, if I hadn't been boiling at the stupidity of the Drifter captain. What kind of clueless numpty tells people she doesn't know about a development that will put them out of business AND that the designers are on board AND that it will all get going as soon as they reach their destination?

I didn't find it that odd. As a generation ship they probably haven't had too many interactions with outsiders. Her role would be administrator more than ambassador. Plus what those scientists are doing is a genuinely exciting prospect, it is what makes her ship so special. It isn't surprising that she'd be really excited to tell people about it.

I can understand the annoyance at Sebastian. He is a pretty miserable protagonist, this isn't his story. Just something he witnessed. And I'm willing to allow some leeway of the physics. If you rejigger the units and measurements such a scenerio is somewhat plausible. Save for the fact you'll expend way more energy trying to accelerate and decelerate a refueling ship than you would have if you just had the generation ship carry it from the start.  But in any case I found all the motivations extremely believable. Some people literally cannot bear the thought of change and progress, especially when it would mean changing the way the make their livelyhood.  Look at the RIAA, look at the way Disney constantly pushes back Copyright length, look at the oil and coal industries. It doesn't matter if it won't happen during their lifetime, they can't bear the thought it might require them to change from the status quo.

Some of you seem to be under the impression that it only delayed Eternity, it actually doomed it. Lacking the fuel to decelerate and passing beyond the reaches of the system and thus the possibility to ever refuel it will slow down but continue to drift forever. Out of the reach of rescue. I find the actions of Wild and Sebastian to be beyond despicable. It is literally sickening, not just because of the loss of life but because of the retardation of progress. And what of the third skeeter pilot? He is culpable too isn't he? Of course hating the characters didn't make me enjoy the story less. For a space opera that played fast and loose with physics I found it an entirely enjoyable tale.

Of course now I want a story about the brave engineers and navigators of the Eternity. Who with only half of the fuel they would need to stop, much less turn around, need to plot a course that will allow them to the gravitational pull of a Hypergiant star to slingshot themselves back to Terra 3.
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Devoted135
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« Reply #19 on: August 31, 2012, 08:49:48 AM »

This is one of those stories where I enjoyed listening to it at the time, and then you all poked it so full of holes it's bleeding all over my desktop. Roll Eyes

I'd have got mad at all those things too, if I hadn't been boiling at the stupidity of the Drifter captain. What kind of clueless numpty tells people she doesn't know about a development that will put them out of business AND that the designers are on board AND that it will all get going as soon as they reach their destination?

I didn't find it that odd. As a generation ship they probably haven't had too many interactions with outsiders. Her role would be administrator more than ambassador. Plus what those scientists are doing is a genuinely exciting prospect, it is what makes her ship so special. It isn't surprising that she'd be really excited to tell people about it.


I think you're right about the captain not understanding why she shouldn't be telling her "exciting news." I strongly believe that many of the controversies over climate change, renewable energy and the like would not exist if scientists were simply educated in how to be effective business people and communicators. /scientist
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