Saturday Story: Fountains of Mercy Part 4

A few months later, back in the Unnamed City, administration, expectations, and hydrology are making life frustrating for Pete Babenburg and his associates . . .

Flood Waters


Bettina droned on for five more minutes before concluding, “Remove the rising water, Mr. Babenburg. Then and only then can we discuss completion of the secondary water system. Your primary duty is to protect what we have, and that includes the take-offs for the city supply.” She brushed a hank of wind-blown hair out of her face and pointed to the Donau Novi rushing past, two kilometers from where they stood on the top of the wall. She’d decided to combine an inspection walk with the weekly municipal amenities meeting, much to her associates’ dismay. The fine misty spring rain and cold wind cut to the bone through light jackets and trousers.

If you’d given us permission nine months ago, we would not be praying over the water intakes, Administratrix Monsiérvo, Pete thought, glowering at his data pad. “Very well.”

He looked up to see her frowning at him, her lips pursed so tightly that they formed a carmine molehill on her pale face. She favored almost white cosmetics in order to enhance the contrast between her black hair and brows and pale skin. Or so Cynthia assured Pete, when he’d asked if Bettina suffered from a skin condition. “No dear,” she’d explained, shaking her head a little, “It’s just that permanent transport pallor is very fashionable in the interior worlds.” Pete had shrugged, relieved that whatever it was wasn’t contagious.

Bettina turned to Arturo Montoya. “Why is the road not finished?”

Arturo shrugged broad shoulders. “Because we still have only two fully functioning combo pavers, and because it now takes six weeks for paving material to get here instead of two. We could move faster if corporate policy permitted the use of local sand and native hydrocarbons, but—“

“No!” Her eyes bulged and Pete winced. Arturo not only struck nerves, he backed up and ran over them a second time just to confirm what he’d hit. “I will not tolerate the wonton violation of corporate policies within my managerial jurisdiction. Such practices insult not only the planetary colonization charter, but the very operational philosophy of Colonial Plantations, Limited itself. Environmental amenities must be left undisturbed for visitors and future residents to observe and learn from, especially non-renewing amenities. The goal of Colonial Plantations Limited is to preserve and protect autochthonous attractions while assisting with population overcrowding reduction. Wise use philosophy drives the Corporation’s very existence,” and she continued reciting boilerplate and sales copy for another minute before winding down.

“Oh, my, that one’s big,” Harding Korso exclaimed, his attention apparently fixed on the river.

Pete peered through the mist in the direction the mayor pointed. “Hmm, yes.” No, actually that’s pretty small compared to what might come downstream once the snow really starts melting in a few weeks. But if you’re used to controlled streams and not to a mostly un-channeled native one, yeah, it’s an impressive bunch of driftwood.

Gerald White snorted, then sneezed. “Sorry.” He tapped on the screen of his data pad. Pete leaned over and saw a list of floating objects from the river, including the flotsam now passing the wall. “Ms. Monsiérvo, remind me, if company policy dictates minimal alteration to the landscape, why does this city intrude onto the active floodplain? Bankfull discharge comes within a kilometer of the base of the wall on the east side.”

“Because this is the higher bank, as you are well aware.” Her acid tone could have etched the rocks they stood on.

Gerald raised one white-blond eyebrow and made another note.

After more pointless blather about preserving the integrity of the native geologic environment, Bettina Monsiérvo called the meeting to a close. Pete and Gerald followed Arturo down from the top of the wall and out of the wind. “Are you making total equipment shut-downs standard from now on?  Gerald asked.

Arturo grunted what sounded like an affirmative. “Can’t get parts for pavers so I’m taking a worst-case approach,” he elaborated once they reached the ground.

“None at all?”

Arturo rocked one hand back and forth. “No electronics. We’re at the bottom of the priority list, because what we need is common to the staples extruders. Gotta feed and clothe the,” he cleared his throat, “ahem, members of previously deprived cultural and genetic groups.”

Pete smothered a comment as a fat woman in subsistence-issue coveralls marched past, intent on some errand or other business. Piff, Art, you’ve called ‘em lazy asses in their hearing more than once, as I recall. But that was before the news story about the riot in New Amsterdam hit the holos. We don’t have enough full citizens here to fight off a mob that size just yet. Better be circumspect for a while, at least when they’re within hearing distance. And no point in giving Bettina more reasons to cut project funds or other things, either. She’s been mighty touchy since spring started.

Pete went with Gerald to the construction engineer’s office. A graphics screen projection took up one entire wall, and Gerald hug up his jacket, then waved his hand and said, “Design files ‘Brüke’ and ‘Outfall Two’, please.” The lights dimmed and the wall grew brighter. Two schematics appeared in the air, both in two-dimensional form. The bridge reminded Pete of a design he’d seen somewhere else, somewhere old, but the outfall attracted most of his attention.

“Upstream or downstream of the bridge?”

“Downstream by a few meters. I want the reinforcements for the bridge pilings to help with your outflow problems. Tide and flood gates?”

Pete nodded. Gerald handed him a remote infrared stylus and Pete added the gates to the drawing of the sewage outfall. “Double. A basic grill to stop debris like the mayor’s tree, and a one-way flapper here,” he sketched it about five meters inside the pipe. “Rainwater and treated blackwater both come out here.”

Gerald rubbed under his nose. “Solid waste?”

“Shouldn’t be a problem. The system is mass composting and we’ve got enough microbes, native and imports, to process for 50,000 people or so for a couple hundred years.”

Gerald gave him a skeptical look, one eyebrow rising along with the corner of his thin mouth. “Like the water supply for 500,000 people at ColLandPlat?”

Pete didn’t take the bait. “I don’t guarantee, I just suggest.” He looked from the bridge to the sewer and back again. “You’re anticipating a siphon effect?”

“Up to bankfull discharge, yes. After that it’s going to overflow into the water-meadows on the opposite bank, which is why I need an elevated roadway on both sides.”

“And the symmetry produces a more aesthetically pleasing design,” Pete observed, tweaking his friend.

Gerald shook his head. “Different question. That high road Arturo’s talking about, for your aqueduct. Where?” He leaned to the side and touched part of the display. “Save changes. Map file four.” The projection shimmered and a current map of the city and forty-kilometer ring around it appeared in the air, replacing the bridge and sewer outfall.

Pete held out his hand and Gerald passed the stylus. Let’s see primary preferred route first, I think. Where’s that gate going to be? He drew a solid line from the western gate, past the farms, just north of the ridge where he’d watched the auroras, and then curved the line south and west, into the hills. He filled in some details and the computer firmed up the projection. Then he drew a dashed line from the northern edge of the city, staying close to the walls before following the river, then tracking up into the hills, still parallel to the Donau Novi. “This is a second, less favorable option. Both would be nice, but I really need this one,” and he ‘tapped’ the solid road, making it flash.

Gerald tipped his head to the side. “Gonna mess up flood overflows.” He took back the stylus, changed a setting, and sketched in water coming out of the river into the five-kilometer wide low area between the city and the ridge. “Old channel, bad sediment for an aqueduct unless you build a helluva substrate and foundation. Needs flow-throughs, too, or you’ll flood the city.”

“What about the farms here? Their contracts warn about the flood hazard?”

Gerald shrugged. “It would be a four-hundred-year flood that got to them.”

Which means a quarter of a percent chance in any given year that they’ll be underwater. I may ask them about that when I see about confirming the right-of-way. Pete rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the muscles starting to tighten. “Right. Any suggestions for chasing the river away from the current drainage outflow?”

“Sorry. Father Jacob doesn’t part the waters. He says that’s why the good Lord gave us technology and engineers.” Gerald winked one pale blue eye. “And I don’t think the mystics at the Gynomajesty Center can do much, either.”

Pete closed his eyes and mimicked a meditative hand gesture. “No. It might interfere with the native energies.” And given some of the incense and drugs they use, I’m not certain I want to see what they’d do to any native energies they did manage to shift, if they can actually do that. They’d probably end up summoning a volcano rather than shifting the river away from the bank, the way his luck was running. “If we could dredge the channel and deepen the thalweg, my life would be easier.”

An eloquent snort answered that semi-question. “You’ve done what you can do. Add that grate to keep the trees out, and secure the rainwater drain access points is my recommendation, and tell those who fuss that rivers flood. That’s what rivers do.” Gerald’s folded arms signaled the conclusion of his advice.

“Right. Any word at all on a time-table for getting those parts and chemicals?”

“I’d hoped you had some news.”

Pete shook his head and wagged one hand a little. “I’m at the outflow of the information pipe; sometimes I get a trickle, sometimes not.”

Gerald ran a hand through his hair, matched Pete’s gesture, and set about saving the files and their notes. “Life at the end of the supply line. We’re better off than New Benin, at least.”

“Thank the Lord.” The southern settlement and its daughter cities had lost over half their electronics and other tech in autumn’s electronic storm.

“You and Cynthia still up for a game tomorrow afternoon?”

Pete shrugged on his jacket. “Darn straight we are. Mrs. Gerald owes me ten credits and I intend to collect.” Sheila White played no-holds-barred killer cribbage, but the cards had smiled on Pete during their last game. They played for deci-credits.

“Bring your banker, because she’s going to clean your accounts out and then some.”

“Promises, promises. Later.”

“Bis später.”


It wasn’t Pete’s day. “Can’t do it,” Hamid bin Marwan said. He pointed to the silent, cold metal fabrication unit. “I can still weld pipe and cast small pieces, but not what you’re talking about.”

Well, shit. Pete went to his back-up plan. “OK, how long until you could get the debris fence and valve plate welded up and ready to install?”

Hamid flipped a page on the homemade paper calendar on the wall. “Three weeks at the earliest. You’re lucky—we’ve got the pipe, and that kind of welding won’t need electronic control, just a good eye and steady hands at the grinder. The valve plate, hmm, I’ll see what we’ve got. Could it be reinforced scrap sheet or you want a solid casting?”

“Um, I’d prefer a casting, but scrap with backing and bars will do for the short-term.” Damn, we’ll have to replace and inspect it more often, until we can get the extruders and materials back on-line. “Like this,” and he borrowed an ink pen and quickly sketched what he needed on the back of a Company form laying on the work table. “I’m assuming two centimeter thick sheet,” he half-asked.

“Yeah. Unless it’s tapped for subs roofing or something.”

“Subs roofing?”

Hamid elaborated on the sketch, adding materials. “Yeah. Corporation wants to upgrade and expand the subsistence housing section. Apparently they got a grant or something to bring in another five thousand or so, all subsistence level settlers. At least, that’s what I heard Korso say he’d heard from Raymond Young.” Hamid totaled up the materials estimate. “I’ll put you on the schedule for four weeks, barring surprises. Check back before then to see about materials.”

“Will do. Thanks.” Pete picked his way past five disabled welding machines, extruders, and fabricators on his way to the door. They loomed in front of the windows, blocking what little sunlight managed to get through the heavy grey clouds. He fastened his collar tight before venturing out into the cutting wind and walking back to his work space. There seemed to be a lot of people on the streets, considering the weather and time of day, and he wondered if he’d missed a news announcement. Oh, it’s the tenth of the month, so credit account records updated. And it’s the quarter, so indenture status updates are also available. People always went shopping or to the holo-arcades and other entertainment venues when the credit days came.

I wonder if that rumor about the new sub settlers is true? Given some of the settlement assignments the company had made over the past ColPlatXI year or two, some off-world administrator plunking five thousand more dependents on the city sounded depressingly probable. I’d better assume that it is true, and plan an extension of the basic and sanitary systems accordingly. Damn, but without a full compliment of trenchers and pipe-extruders, it’s going to be a real pain. And won’t that put the expanded sub-sett outside the wall? As soon as he got inside and powered up his displays, Pete called up schematics of the city’s water supply and removal system. “Expand grid four C four times,” he ordered. The Company’s subsistence settlement obligingly grew larger. “Update pending wall locations, current data set omicron.” Grey blocks appeared, hovering over existing residential squares. Well, that’s a challenge. And which way will they expand the sub-sett? Along the wall, or toward the river? “Duplicate subgrid four decimal four C two, parallel wall, south.”

The phantom dwellings, medical centers, recreation spaces, and distribution points offended Pete’s sense of urban design. No large taps or expansion pipes extended to the walls in that area because it contained houses of worship, the secondary administrative center, and a large expanse of green space on both sides of the walls. In fact, as he watched, Pete saw a small red alert code flashing at the edge of the display. “Show alert.” Distance warnings appeared. The housing expansion along the wall violated the security distance requirements, encroached on the Company-mandated green space, and interfered with a safety right-of-way. “Oh good,” he whispered well under his breath. The new housing couldn’t expand into that area, so he wouldn’t have to deal with a massive right-angle bend in the inflow and outgo pipes, or trying to run pipes under existing structures and the wall in order to reach new users. “Thank you, Lord.”

He spoke louder. “Cancel expansion south.” The shapes vanished. “Duplicate subgrid four decimal four C two, east from edge of designated subgrid.” The computer grafted the new residential blocks and their associated infrastructure onto the current section. Pete grunted, not happy but not as worried as before. Two straight runs and five smaller sub-branches of pipe extended straight out from the end of the current lines east toward the river. They and the area they served ended well into the floodplain. “Add pump, code lima sev— cancel, code lima eight to waste return system.” A larger pump appeared, along with two smaller, upstream units to get the flow uphill and into the line to the sewage processing plant. Hmm, what if we can’t get pumps for a while? No, housing and sanitation are priority two behind edibles. Shouldn’t be a problem, which means it will be. IF this comes to fruition and isn’t some wild rumor, that is. “Save plans, expansion sub-sett two decimal zero.” Task done, Pete returned to working on identifying property holders along the proposed aqueduct right-of-way.


“Are you taking a rover?” Cynthia asked the next morning.

Pete finished his choco-coffee and wiped his mouth. “No. I need to stretch my legs, and I’m just going to the farms in the Heritage Center to meet with Alex Danilov. Why?”

“Just curious. There’s a rumor going around that the rovers will be restricted to Company personnel and ‘critical infrastructure users’ soon, because of the lack of parts. Which makes no sense, because the public manifest for the next corporate shipment includes a lot of electronics parts and datacards.” She whisked his cup away and tucked it into the washer. He felt more comfortable if she had fresh dishes made for every meal, but she’d taken to washing and reusing them, instead of recycling and remaking the cups and platters. Pete still wasn’t sure about the arrangement, but he didn’t feel like bringing it up again. Not if she intended to make a real beast roast and a citrus cake out of the ingredients sitting on the counter and listed on the cooler display. Even with modern technology, her ancient citrus cake recipe did best when Cynthia remained calm and quiet. And when the kids and I are out of the residence. Heavy feet and that cake do not do well together. He thought the fallen cake tasted pretty good, but the “floating” version with a touch of whipped creamer? His mouth watered at the very suggestion.

“I’m not familiar with that particular rumor, love. I did hear one claiming that five thousand subsistence-level settlers will be located here in the near future.” He got up from the table and pecked her on the cheek.

She smiled, the little dimples appearing on her peach-pink cheeks. “I heard it was three thousand at Crownpoint and five hundred here. Oh, and another version has them settling up in the mountains, since the resorts are cutting back capacity due to the lack of visitors.”

“Next we’ll hear that the Company is going to install thermal domes in the mountains and set up hydroponic facilities to grow tropical flowers and fruits,” he joked.

She shut the sterilizer’s door and turned the unit on. “Nope. Wheat and quinley. Because what else would they grow after putting that many resources into the grow domes? Certainly not something high-return and high-demand.”

“You,” he kissed her again, “know the bureaucratic mind all too well. I’m off.” He scooted out of arm’s reach before she could swat him for the insult.

Over night the clouds had faded into a thin veil across the pale blue sky. The western sky seemed clear, and Pete wondered how long until the snow began melting in force. A soft breeze danced through the buildings, fluttering a few banners and flags and bringing the scent of the river and of damp dirt into the city. Once outside the walls, Pete tightened the strap on his hat, lest the breeze send it bouncing into the mudflats. Two rovers rolled out along the road, carrying what looked like transformers. Maybe they’ll finally replace the bad units up in the hills, now that the foresters have finished putting together independent systems, he snorted. Pete walked briskly, glad to get out of the walls. The city felt crowded for some reason.

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills,” he recited as he looked west. A rugged wall of green and brown rumpled against the blue sky. Here and there pastures and a few straggling orchards and even a vineyard interrupted the march of the trees, adding different shades of green. White and yellow wildflowers, carefully selected by the Company’s terraformers for the “most biologically and aesthetically satisfactory blend,” appeared in the grass along the sides of the roadway. Count on the Company to make even flowers boring, he snorted.

The breeze felt good by the time he reached the synth-wood gate of the Farming Heritage Center. Pete passed his ID over the reader, heard a faint click, and waited for the gate to move. Nothing happened. He tried again, with the same result. “Hello?”

A round, pink face under a shock of messy brown hair appeared, peering over the top of the gate. “Hi?”

“I’m here to talk to Mr. Danilov. Could you let me in please?”

The face disappeared, then reappeared as the gate swung out toward him on complaining hinges. “Da’s at the derry barn with a sick cow,” the boy announced. “Her milk’s gone funny.”

Despite himself Pete shivered. Five years and I still can’t get used to people living this close to big animals. He knew intellectually that cows, horses, shahma, and mules and donkeys were obligate herbivores, bred for docile temperaments and quiet behavior. But growing up and living most of his adult life in the mega-cities made him wary of anything large and living. Pete kept an eye out for attack sheep as he walked the packed dirt path between the houses to the “derry” barn. I wonder why it’s called derry? Maybe that’s where the first building like this came from.

He met Alex Danilov and a woman in a stained, patched coverall coming out of the barn. She carried a medical kit with her. “And you’ll need to milk her dry at least four times a day until the infection clears up, then keep the milk separate for at least six days after that, until everything clears her system. You don’t need to quarantine her completely, though.”

“That’s a relief,” Danilov said. “Any idea how to prevent it? I’m getting tired of this, and I suspect the cows are too. This is the third one with mastitis.”

“Just do what you’ve been doing, but more of it. Keep them upright, on their feet for an hour after milking, clip the hair off the udders and wash them before milking and again after, and sterilize the milking equipment or wash your hands very, very well before milking and between cows. I didn’t see any record of repeat infections, so you don’t have a chronic carrier. Yet.”

“Thank you for coming out,” Danilov said, offering his hand to the woman. She shook it and walked off, her heavy boots squeaking on the hard ground outside the barn. The heavyset, blond man heaved a sigh and shifted his straw hat. He caught sight of Pete and waved. “Sorry, Mr. Babenburg. Got a sick cow and don’t want it spreading.”

“What’s wrong?”

Danilov tipped his head back, as if pointing to the white barn looming behind him. “Mastitis: infection of the udder. Spoils the milk and makes the cow cranky. Humans can’t get it.”

That’s a relief. “Sorry to hear that.”

“Let’s go to the benches there,” and the farm supervisor nodded to red-painted seats along a table in the shade of one of the buildings. “Stay upwind until the boys finish mucking out the barn.”

As they sat, Pete wondered if any truth remained to the story that fate or the Lord destined certain peoples to certain tasks. Alexander Menno Danilov reminded Pete of the ancient pictures he’d seen of the Slavs of old Earth, all farmers and peasants through the generations. A Mennonite like his ancestors, Alex wore a plain, sturdy dark coverall, straw hat, and acid-resistant boots. His short red beard and blond hair matched red cheeks and blue eyes. His hands sported as many cuts and callouses as the hands of carpenters or metal workers did. “I’ll speak plainly, if you don’t mind,” Pete began.

“Not at all. I’m a plain man.” Alex waited, as if expecting Pete to catch some joke or cue.

Pete missed whatever it was. He unfolded a hard-copy map, pinning it to the table with his hand when it tried to blow away. “We’re planning to build a second aqueduct to the city from the hills. At the moment the plan is to run it under a highroad, so both are above the water line and flooding won’t be a problem. If all goes well, it will run from here,” he pointed to the hills, “down the slope and over this way, over the ridge and across to the western gate.”

Danilov followed with his finger, then glanced north, as if he could see the new route. “North of the current road?”

“Yes. Otherwise there will be extra bends that will make maintenance and construction more difficult and expensive.”

Danilov studied the map, looked north again, then back at the map. “This clips the edge of the farm’s residential center, trims the ends off the wheat fields and winter pasture. And what about drainage?”

Pete pulled his portable computer out of his shoulder bag and called up the plans. “There’s flow-throughs every five hundred meters. I’d planned on what used to be called French drains: underground, not visible, but that let the water under the road. On the positive side, floods will be less likely to get through to you.”

“Hmm.” Danilov rubbed under his fleshy nose. “Over the ridge, you said?”


“Gonna be hard to turn the plows against the slope, so we’ll lose even more ground.” The farmer thought for a minute, idly waving away a fly. “I need to speak with the others, but if you provide us with a domestic tap, same as you would a house-block in the city, it should be agreeable.”

That’s going to be, well, no, not if it runs from the western fenceline to the settlement. “You’ll have to dig the trenches,” Pete warned. “My equipment’s not allowed to do that kind of work within the boundaries of the Heritage Center.”

“We’d rather do it ourselves.” Alex tapped the paper map. “This is assuming everyone here agrees, and you know that not everyone might go along.”

Pete didn’t know, but he nodded anyway. That seemed to be the correct response.  Danilov got up and Pete followed him, putting the map and computer back into his bag. “Come have a bite of lunch.”

An hour later Pete waddled through the Heritage Center’s main gate and onto the road, full of choco-coffee and food. Oh, it’s a good thing I walked, because if I don’t work this off, my blood chemistry will set off all sorts of alert bells. Especially the fats. I’ve never had real, authentic cow cream before I don’t believe. And after that, the synthesized stuff Cynthia used would never be the same. If that’s a little lunch, Lord save me from a large meal! But what he’d learned made up for the risk of a lecture about his lipid load.

I can’t believe no one’s ever approached them before. Except I can. Right now the Heritage Center’s residents depended on two wells for their water, one for humans and one for the animals. The good news was that the wells had been drilled upstream from the fields, so the composted manure used as fertilizer didn’t affect them. The bad news was that as the groundwater levels rose and fell with the seasons, so did the wells. The prospect of a steady water supply, even one dependent on a functioning aqueduct, thrilled the people in the village. So too did the prospect of ground rent for the right-of-way.

“Some of us are second generation indentures,” Danilov explained. “And the work we do for ourselves doesn’t count to the indenture. Only outside credits from produce and livestock sales, plus the community distribution for living in the Heritage Center and doing demonstrations, goes into our family credit accounts.”

The information rocked Pete back in his seat. “That stinks.” That’s not fair. It takes more effort to subsist, and that subsistence is part of the Heritage Center function, so why not give them general credits? Because you can’t convert milling grain or making soap and preserving food into market credits in a way that would satisfy the Company’s accounting formulae and auditing templates, Pete had realized as he started thinking about it. The arrival of more food than he’d seen in a while distracted him, but only for a moment.

Pete had turned his attention to the fruit pie, small sausages, and warm whiteroot salad, considering Alex’s words as he ate. After complimenting the cooks, he ventured, “The animals you plow with sometimes. Can they pull other things?”

“Certainly. Wagons, sledges with harrows, sleds, almost anything that rolls or slides easily and that doesn’t make much noise. Why?”

“Because once we start work on this part of the road and aqueduct, there may be a way for you to earn more credits. Depending on parts availability and priorities, we, that is the construction supervisors and other engineers, may need to limit the big road-pourers and formers to certain tasks. If your men and animals could help with digging and grading, that would keep things moving for us and bring in credits for you.”

Danilov leaned back and seemed to mull over Pete’s idea. “I don’t see why not, so long as it’s not plowing or harvest. And you don’t want us to work around explosives or other dangerous equipment.”

“Nope. And I’ll have to talk to several other people, get their opinions and see what the Company administrators will allow.” He didn’t want to get Danilov’s hopes up only to dash them.

“It would be a fair trade, and if we’ll be digging the trenches for our pipes, drainage ditches and grading are part of what we need to do anyway.” Danilov nodded slowly. “I’ll talk to the men, but I think, Company permitting of course, that we can help.”

A second slice of pie, fresh from Mrs. Danilov’s oven, cemented the tentative agreement. She’d apologized for serving dried apple pie, but Pete tasted nothing to apologize about. Especially after she poured extra cream into the little hole in the crust. His mouth started watering again as he remembered the cool of the cream and the spicy taste of the steaming pie. I see why Alex is round. But something tells me he needs those joules of food energy.

Pete stopped by his office and found a message from Bettina Monsiérvo blinking at him. She’d returned to the city and wanted to meet with him to discuss the drainage problem. What drainage problem? Nothing’s backed up yet. He brushed the dirt off his pant cuffs and shoes before walking to her office in the low, tangled sprawl administrative complex.

(C) 2014, 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All rights Reserved.


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