Across the Skies

Eventhe trailed prints through the mud left by the monsoon, leading Arcite and Staever. Occasionally she stopped in the middle of a vortex of footprints and reorient herself. The lack of bodies on the path heartened Staever–the rain must have overtaken them as they beat their way northeast.

But it perturbed him as well. If Xander’s clan had drunk their fill, why hadn’t they turned around? Were they under Xander’s power, or afraid of something else?

The scrub fell away, then the dirt, leaving the trio on rocky trails. The blade-edge of the mountains hove into view, growing gloomy as the sun set under clouds. Eventhe had to spend more time picking scratches out of the natural marks on the surface of the rock. Arcite kicked pebbles over cliffs and hummed to himself.

“Can you shut up?” Staever asked after a few minutes.

“You got it.” Arcite fell silent. The only sound was their feet crunching on the path and water sloshing in their skins. The quiet got Staever thinking about how little he’d planned this. What if Xander was setting up an ambush?

“Changed my mind. Start humming again.”

“Don’t know what you want from me, boss,” Arcite said, and quickened to join Eventhe.

Sunset ended too soon, leaving them in the grip of a chill. They kept warm by marching in place while Eventhe searched for signs. Staever was too unnerved, Eventhe too disciplined, and Arcite too outvoted to rest.

The Land Moon was high above them, and the valleys had deepened into canyons, when Staever called a halt. Eventhe reminded him of Xander’s headstart.

“If we get too tired we’ll lose time,” Staever declared. “Besides, three can always move faster than a hundred.”

The plateau was smooth from eons of wind and whipping rain. Prospects for a warm hollow were bleak. The others wandered ahead.

Soon Eventhe called his name. Arcite’s voice floated down as well: “Boss, come check this out!”

They’d stepped down to a ledge on the side of the plateau. Staever followed their calls, then stopped in his tracks.

A bridge spanned the chasm: springing from their ledge to a lower plateau hundreds of paces away. It was made of a patchwork of materials–a packed-sand body with rock struts bored into the opposite faces, supporting the center.

Staever held his breath: from the bridge, the sweep of rock seemed an ocean, mountains tumbling over each other like a storm frozen at its peak. He, Arcite, and Eventhe became castaways, clinging to the shore, fearing their first steps into the void.

“There’s yellow clay here somewhere,” Arcite said.

Staever agreed. There was no other way the bridge could stay up. It floated on air.

Arcite grabbed Eventhe by her claw and pulled her onto the bridge, forcing Staever to chase them both over empty space. At once, the thought of rest disappeared. A third of the way along, two shadows twisted as Eventhe let go of Arcite’s claw and hurtled down the bridge. Arcite skidded after her, his footing awkward. Eventhe turned around, and lifted her mask enough for Staever to tell she was grinning. The emptiness around her entered her. The air made her whole. He’d ever seen her move so fast without a target ahead.

Staever ran like he was treading on nothing. If only Emaria could see this. The grandeur of the Clearing, right here in the sky. Turner himself might have been here.

Halfway along, he saw another bridge leap out near this one’s end. Other spars of sand connected the next plateaus: an aerial network so large the Land Moon could not show it all.

At the end of the bridge he found Eventhe and Arcite in a notch of the rock, lying against each other. Arcite snored. Staever dropped nearby, shut his eyes, and slept.

***

Eventhe watched Staever fall asleep, Arcite’s weight against her, her shell warm where he’d laid his head. Only when she was certain both were asleep, certain the alcove was safe and concealed, did she drift off, listening to Arcite breathe.

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The Chase Begins

As the rainfall slackened, Wrest and Emaria caught up to Staever on the edge of camp. He was packing his belt with water jugs made of bone, a shell-blade at his side. Arcite and Eventhe were with him, she filling more jugs from a jury-rigged communal vat, he packing some dried beetle. “Are you three going somewhere?” Emaria asked.

Arcite piped up, “We’re going after Xander!”

Staever shot him a look, then turned to Wrest and Emaria. “It’s true. I don’t know what in three moons he thinks he’s accomplishing, but I’m not going to let his clan suffer because I was dumb enough to put him in charge.”

“What are you going to do?” Emaria glanced toward Staever’s sword.

“Try not to hurt him.” he replied, unsmiling. “We don’t have much time to catch up. I’m taking Arcite and Eventhe as bodyguards. I need you two to lead the column.”

“We need you here. People work for you, send one of them.”

“I can’t. Xander’s my mistake.” Staever put a claw on each of their shoulders. “I trust you both. Follow the maps. Don’t do anything dangerous.”

“I’ll take care of your city.” The relief in Wrest’s voice mirrored Emaria’s. Before the rainstorm, Staever would never have taken his eyes off the caravan.

Arcite waved, Eventhe nodded, and both turned away. Staever turned to Emaria. “Em. I…”

He was worried. But what about? Half the jobs they’d pulled were more threatening than Xander could ever be.

“I’ll see you again. Be back soon.”

He scampered away to join Arcite and Eventhe, headed north.

At once Emaria buckled, certain his farewell had been a lie. Sea, bring them all back. Staever doesn’t deserve it. And I’ve hurt Xander enough.

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The Monsoon

Staever’s back foot caught on a rock and tumbled it into the culvert. The lobsters advanced, swallowing the priest. Staever pressed against the rock as clan after clan converged, hundreds of dry voices shouting at once.

“Where’s the water?”

“You lied to us!”

“We’ll take you down with us!”

“Quiet!” It came out as a squeak his conch couldn’t amplify. He needed water.

The rough rock scraped his tail, then his legs–

–the rock was damp.

Water trickled through the trench, branching into new cracks, mixing with the dust. The first drops were halfway to being mud. Staever drank them as fast as his thirsty shell could.

He risked a look uphill. The dry wash cut through the prairie before jumping up a precipice dark with clouds.

It rains up there, we get it here. Like a canal.

Those at the front pressed close, like Staever was about to perform a magic trick. The roadmen felt the trickle too: they hunched in the mud, grubbing for water, ignoring everyone. He burst past them to climb the cliff.  “Move aside! Get out of the ditch, stand higher up!”

Wrest appeared, Emaria behind him, both baffled. Staever sent them off to part the camp while he rushed to and fro–moving tents and fires, setting crews to drag ships clear.

The stream crashed down the mountains, filling a ditch he hadn’t noticed before. The bunches of dead grass must have hidden dormant seeds for this moment.

The mob dispersed into the camp and spread out along the banks, everyone embracing the water. At first, nothing could get past the thirsty lobsters near the mouth of the gully, but then the squall behind the flash flood moved over the plains and opened up the sky.

People carried the sick and weak into the downpour. Rich and poor alike climbed onto the moored sandships, dancing, jumping to get closer to the rain. Children threw it on their parents, who grabbed buckets and bottles and filled them to the brim.

Staever organized those who could carry water, and sent them doubling back to find as many dryout victims as they could. Refugees clapped him on the back and shook his claw as he gave them directions. Half the groups returned within an hour, telling him the long gully watered all but the tail end of the column, and others had beaten them there.

Moments before, his people had nearly torn him apart, but what choice did he have but to forgive them? He hadn’t believed in the monsoons either.

The map sheltered under a scrap of canvas strung up in the camp. This rain would sweep south, over the highlands and plains, into the forests where the Clearing waited to receive them. Only Cyprus, the fearful governor, had been able to dream of it all, knowing he would die without seeing it.

In that downpour, Staever could stand to be Cyprus’s son.

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Crowd Control

Biting winds rolled in with the grey. Wrest and Emaria huddled behind a boulder to keep warm. It offered a good vantage point across the valley, toward a large gathering of incensed lobsters.

“Who’s that?” Emaria asked. “Xander?”

“No,” Wrest said. “It’s Staever.”

The lobsters had Staever backed against a short cliff circling into a rocky culvert, leading up. He was saying something while backing away.

“He’s in trouble. I’m going down there.”

“Wait!” Emaria pinched Wrest’s tail. “We should get the soldiers. They can control the crowd.”

“Absolutely not.” Wrest walked on.

“You’re going to risk Staever’s life because you’re–”

She broke off.

“I’m what?” Wrest asked from the crest of the hill.

“Was that a drop?”

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The Departure of Xander

Near morning, Staever found himself alone.

It was an illusion of the darkness, burning away with light in the west. But in the moment it hadn’t looked that way.

His friends were strung out along the line. Emaria had been avoiding him, and he had no clue why. It didn’t matter to Arcite whether anybody else dried out, and Eventhe had never been the ideal confidant. Whenever Staever sought out Wrest, the big lobster was paging through a sheaf of weeds he’d hide when Staever got near.

“Wrest, what’s in there?” he asked when he found him after sunrise, too tired to be polite any longer.

Wrest looked away. “I want to tell you, Staev. It’s just–better if you don’t know yet.”

“How bad could it be? Why won’t anybody tell me anything anymore?”

Emaria appeared, a dark look on her face. “I guess I’m about to find out why I haven’t seen you all night?” Staever asked.

“We need to stop.”

Wrest slipped off with his seaweed sheaf.

Emaria led Staever to a dozen lobsters lying in the scrub. Though their faces were half-buried by windblown dust, he recognized an entire clan: a whole family sapped of strength. The one who remained on his feet shot Staever an accusatory glance.

“How many more?” he asked, dread mounting.

“I’ve been riding on Northern Cross. I’ve seen others fallen.” Emaria’s voice broke, though she was too dry for tears. “They’re not dead yet. But they can’t get to the rain, Staever. They can’t move.”

“Have you fed them?”

“It doesn’t make any difference.”

At the start of the journey, Staever had made special provisions for the sick. He’d never considered what to do when everyone was sick.

“Let them stay.” The sunrise wasn’t coming right. Gray light fell on the whole column, making the desert more forbidding than ever.

“What?” Emaria demanded. “Are you saying to abandon them?”

“The only thing that matters now is getting somebody to rain. If people can’t walk, leave them with someone who can watch them. We’ll come back.”

“You said yesterday it might not be enough rain. Isn’t that why you made us walk all night in the first place?”

“Yes!” He stalked away from her. “I’m changing my mind!”

“You said never to split up,” she shouted at his back. “You said that’s how we’d die. Did you forget?”

Her being wrong made it no easier to look her in the eye. The quarter of the valley ahead was windswept and empty, and he made up his mind to range ahead of the column, to meet the monsoon head on.

Suddenly the valley wasn’t empty.

Xander came toward him. As he neared, Staever saw a pack of lobsters following him, all equipped for a journey.

The awful possibility Staever had been trying to ignore was true, and Emaria had known. He wasn’t the only one planning to split the column. How could he have been so stupid as to give Xander any power? “Xander, have some patience. I can show you the map.”

“You expect us to believe rain will come,” Xander said. “It’s madness. I’m cutting my losses and taking this group home.”

Staever felt a sickness unrelated to his parched shell. Xander’s ranks of followers had swollen from what he’d been granted. A hundred lobsters shouldered packs behind him.

“We are returning to the Eye, back to the sea, to rebuild. You can’t stop us. Neither can Kragn.”

“You’re insane.” Staever raised his voice, hoping the clan would hear him. “You’ve got no water, no food, no idea where you’re going…”

“Neither do you!” Xander shot back. “We lost everything because of you. I will lead these people to recover it.” Though the deposed governor was as dust-covered and weary as the rest of them, his voice swelled with pride. He walked up the trail, his clan following behind, different from the way they’d come.

Staever was too dry to shout. The plain behind the departing column fell silent.

Others had seen Xander leave. Three desert farmers, middle-aged but still imposing, were the first to accost him. “What’s going on?” demanded the largest. “Where’d that clan go?”

“They’re looking for water.”

He could have imagined it, but he felt a tiny bit refreshed. His senses heightened. Some life returned to his legs.

The sky remained grey. After sunrise, but lit like the hour before dawn.

Time to make a wager. Here or nowhere.

“If they’re looking for water,” the farmer said, “what are we doing here? Isn’t the water supposed to come to us?”

“It is.” Their surroundings didn’t fit the map. Yet he’d felt a drop. “I’m stopping the column here.”

“What’s different about here? It’s the same desert. With more dying lobsters.”

Staever’s heart jolted. A crowd gathered behind the farmers–men, women, and children, farmers and merchants, engineers and sea-monks.

His instincts kicked in. He searched for an escape route. A trio of road-builders had moved in front of the path to high ground, but there was a ledge he could scale for a headstart.

A monk spoke up. “Water cannot fall from the sky. Water comes from the sea, and returns to the sea. The sea cannot get here.”

The mob wasn’t going to hurt Staever. If I’m right…

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The General’s Offer

Kragn was waiting for Staever at the front of the column, wearing a sword and a short knife, alone. Staever quickened his pace, hoping this wasn’t bad news.

“Is something on the perimeter?” he asked as soon as Kragn was in earshot.

“All’s quiet for a mile out. Do you have a minute to talk?”

They fell into step, together leading the long strand of red and brown and pink and green dashes, threading away from the mountains.

Kragn asked, “Have you broken up any more fights?”

The general took long steps. Staever wasn’t sure what to make of Kragn’s having heard that story. Any number of lobsters might be interested to hear of strife within the camp. He was suddenly glad to be seen walking with the general: it was good to remind people whom Kragn supported.

“A few,” he admitted. “I try share the water out equally.”

“I’ve had the same problem among the soldiers,” Kragn said. “Thirst has a way of revealing the disciplined ones. We dry them out in training, but they never quite see it as real.”

Staever concealed a shudder. He and Wrest had taught the same methods of resisting thirst to the Cuttlefish. “The soldiers are fighting over water?” he asked.

“Not with their weapons. The penalty there is immediate discharge. And not all of them fight. In fact, that’s why I came to see you.”

Haze rising from the rocks obscured the edges of Staever’s vision. He couldn’t make out a single perimeter soldier.

“Fights over water are going to continue,” Kragn told him. “I came to offer you some extra security.”

“What kind of security?” Every fighter in the militia is already out on guard…

Then it hit him.

“No,” he said. “I’m sorry. Absolutely not.”

“Don’t answer hastily,” Kragn warned. “The more the peace of this camp gets damaged, the longer it’ll take to undo. My men can ensure nobody gets hurt. As a precaution. Until we find water.”

“I’m not changing my mind.” The comfort Staever got from being seen with Kragn was turning to dust. He wanted to get away.

“Is there nothing I can say to convince you?”

“I…” He stammered like a fool. “I need all your forces on the perimeter. Or something might get through.”

Kragn sighed. “I respect your conviction, Staever. We won’t speak of this again.”

He set off ahead, vanishing from view on his way back to the ring.

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The Flyer

A tiny shadow wheeled above the zigzag line of the mountains, the size of the tip of her claw at arm’s length. As Emaria watched, it dipped, hovered, then soared again.

The sun beat down on her. Her dry tail scratched against bunchgrass, and she wondered how the scrub survived without seawater. Maybe their roots are so deep they can reach water we can’t. Maybe we should dig.

A young man paused beside her. “What’s that flying thing?”

“I’m not sure.” She’d better tell Staever. Out here, all knowledge was superstition. He knew superstition.

And his map? Superstition as well?

“Ma’am?” asked the young lobster. “Are we going to stop today?”

The sky was pink with sunset. The lobster in front of her had the rough claws of a laborer but had slid up deftly as a pickpocket. His clan had stopped in their tracks to hear Emaria’s answer. If Emaria told him they planned to stop, he’d send the news up and down the column, and it would take all night to get them moving again.

Another night and morning, and people would start to die. But what else was there but the one hope of rain?

“Not yet,” she said. “Another hour. Then we’ll make camp. You can walk another hour, right?”

The lobster nodded dully and went to prod his family onward. I’ll come back in an hour and tell the truth.

She looked back to the darkening mountains. The flyer was gone.

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Xander and Crane

Crane cast a wistful glance at the Council Flagship, as its oarsmen poled it along pace by pace half a mile behind him. It was svelte, impressive in craftsmanship rather than size. The other governors–save Graphus, who preferred to hitch rides with bottom-feeders–were comfortable in its cool hold, maybe watering right now. Not him, though. Returning after boasting he could handle the desert would be one humiliation too many.

The irony was, he could handle deserts. He’d led troops against nomadic bandits, traveled miles then sat for days at a time outside some desolate cave. But this desert was wrong. Every desert ended in the sea, every desert was made of sand. The Forbidden Expanse never ended. It was made of nothing.

As groups passed him, he bent an antenna to their conversations. Lobsters wanted to know where the water was. One or two would have turned back, except they didn’t fancy making the northward journey alone.

This was better than water. Staever’s coup was collapsing. All he needed to do was give it a push.

Yet he wielded the political clout of a scrawny miner after a bad throw of the dice. He could do nothing without help.

He sighed and turned back. Time to talk to Xander.

The young governor was walking in the shade of the flagship, tailed by a couple of lobsters who looked unsure why they were there. Xander dismissed them when Crane slipped into the shadow. The polers a slow enough pace for Crane, with his bent driftwood staff, to keep up.

“Your clan?” he asked.

“They’re warming to me,” Xander replied, self-assured as though his breakdown at the ruins had never happened.

Crane suppressed his distaste. “I need your help.”

“You speak like I should be honored to offer it.”

“No, I don’t,” Crane said. “There are no pretenses out here and no room for gamesmanship. I dislike you. Immensely.”

“And I find you irrelevant.” Xander turned away. “If you don’t mind, there’s only so much shade, and I like to spread out.”

“I’m not finished.” The poles scraped out a beat. Half the rowers held up the ship while the other half drove it forth. “You made an excellent proxy in the Eye, for measures I didn’t want on my reputation.”

“Does this have a point? With our water on rations, conversations this dull are a luxury.”

You don’t sound like you’ve gone wanting. Crane said, “I’m aware you saw me as a means to advance your career, and nothing more.”

“Correct.”

“There’s no reason we can’t still be useful to each other. After the fall, certain things stuck to me that didn’t stick to you. You have influence I lack.”

“You assume I need your help.” Scrape, scrape. No sign of uncertainty in Xander’s voice, a spectacular self-delusion.

“Your clan doesn’t respect you,” Crane snapped. “Staever asked them to pretend they do. You need my help.”

“Staever wants me placid and subservient. I let him think I am. You’re not part of the transaction.”

Scrape. Crane’s walking stick outpaced the poles as he struggled to keep up. “What’s your plan?”

“You wouldn’t understand it. You dig your every word from some ancient weed-scroll of moral philosophy. You lack imagination.”

Crane planted his staff, but it slid against the rock. The desert floor seared his skeleton when he fell. He scrabbled against the ground to right himself, the staff spinning away. Xander walked on, the shade moving with him, leaving Crane in the sunlight as the poles scraped.

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Forsaken

Every time Staever checked the map, he became more certain. A mark spanning the eastern highlands matched a ridge up ahead, a web of lines beside it matched a web of crags. The grey shadow of a summer storm’s path ran to the south. There was only one problem.

“It’s a day away.” Staever passed the map to Wrest. “Have they got a forced march in them?”

Wrest fidgeted. “Maybe we can send out a party, bring some water back here?”

“For a hundred thousand?” The path wove on for miles, each ridge speckled with scrub grass. White patches drifted in the sky.

“Enough to prove the rain is real.”

“What if it only falls for ten minutes?” Staever asked. “Sea, I wish I could trust Cyprus more than I do.”

Ships were now so loaded the treads jammed routinely. Clans spread thin across the landscape. How much longer until they lose sight of each other? Until everybody is food for something creeping or flying around out here?

He said, “Some people don’t have the time it would take us to get back.”

“So we’re going?”

“I’d rather be moving.” Rather not trust. “I wonder if the ocean forsook this continent on purpose.”

“The priests would say the water is scarce to make us strong.” Wrest scratched his thorax. “Right? That’s more your department.”

With trembling arms, a mother lifted her child to a vessel rail, where two crewmen hauled him aboard. As the ship pulled away, she sat motionless in the sand.

Staever’s graft itched. “Over there.” He pointed at the mother. “Is her clan coming?”

“Wait and see.”

It wasn’t easy, but Wrest was right. The clans should protect their own. He thought about Wrest’s theology to keep from running to the woman. “Depends what priest you ask. Some of them think the idea of the sea ‘forsaking’ stuff doesn’t make sense, because everything is the sea. Some say it’s a cycle. ‘Where once was land, will then be sea’.”

“How soon?” Wrest asked. His laugh disappeared under a flurry of hacking coughs. Anxiety seized Staever. “Wrest, have you been drinking your ration?”

“I’m drinking enough.”

“I know what you’re doing. I gave the kids a ration, too.”

“Wier was coughing last night, Staev. A little one, but thirst gets worse fast. I gave them a little more. It’s not going to kill me.”

“Wrest. The sea is with us all, got it? It’ll protect them too.”

Wrest nodded. Staever hoped he’d go back to Alta and Wier and give them good news about rain. He himself headed for the grieving young mother, to ask her to keep walking for one more day, for water, for him.

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The Clay Temple

A square building squatted on the hill, with open sides and a ceiling supported by four pillars of sand. When Arcite caught up to Eventhe, she flung out a claw to stop him entering.

“Yellow clay.” She sniffed the air. “The tang grows stronger.”

“You can smell it?”

“You cannot?”

Set into the floor was a pit with a gaping mouth. Peering into it, Arcite saw empty jars and decaying wooden tools. “It’s a temple.”

Eventhe nodded. “The pit is for offerings.”

“Offerings to who?” Arcite followed her over the threshold.

Starting at one corner of the floor, a series of carved images ran left to right in lines, like the text of a scroll. Arcite picked out lobsters, all handling small lumps or carting them around. Tumps evolved into towers and piles–yellow and red clay.

The carvings descended into the offering pit, where the jars and shards of jars covered them. When they reappeared, something changed. The lobsters were joined by a creature much greater in size, though never the same creature twice. An enormous lobster in one, a manatee in the next. Then it slid into the shapes of animals Arcite had only heard of from myths–whales, giant squids, a taloned monstrosity like one of the air demons Staever was so afraid of. It was as though–

“–nobody knew what it looked like. Like they couldn’t agree.”

The same positioning, the same size: the carvers were all trying to represent the same being. What kind of animal didn’t have a body?

“I have heard a voice in this place,” Eventhe said. “As though the walls spoke. Their story is bloody.”

“What story? Do you mean really talking, or…”

“This will make it clear.” Eventhe had moved to the final panel in the sequence. It bore a pictograph simpler than the other carvings: a lone tree, a mountain, and a winding river. “The mark of Turner.”

“Turner the Architect?”

“He sealed his completed projects with this mark.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“This temple,” Eventhe said, disgust in her voice, “is a monument to worship clay. The only power Turner believed in.”

“So that big animal thing is…clay?”

“Clay personified. Clay amplified. Its power unbound, its potential unlimited.”

The explanation felt incomplete, but there was something else on Arcite’s mind. “Why did you bring me up here?”

She straightened her mask. “When I was a miner, clay was more important than water. Small grains had great power. Whoever found red clay bought drinks for the rest of us at night. Whoever found yellow clay retired to the Pupil. It was our purpose.”

“They talked like that in the Field,” Arcite said. “Clay is excess, clay is for the ocean alone because lobsters can’t handle it. Hot air. It shouldn’t hurt people.”

“It hurt.”

Arcite shut up.

“A hairline crack in a tunnel made it unstable. Someone dug up a vein of yellow, and the inspectors were trying to claim their share. They didn’t notice the fracture. I was the last one out.”

“Ev,” Arcite said, “it was you, wasn’t it? You found the yellow clay.”

“Do you intend to blame me for it?” Eventhe snapped. “I was not myself then. I was unwilling to let the yellow clay go. I stayed to protect it as the tunnel fell, then…” Her claw went again to the mask.

Arcite thought he saw underneath it–not the shadow of eyes, but the whole face. Under the cloth, Eventhe’s heart was naked. He wished he could take the burden from her, but it was so obvious she didn’t need his help that the offer would be nonsense. In a life of blurting out everything on his mind, he’d found the one thing he couldn’t say.

For a while they stood in the open temple, blown by the highland winds.

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