A Hopeless Endeavour

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: April 14, 2017

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Submitted: April 14, 2017



We were adrift in unknown space, surviving on oxygen generation and recycled food, drinking filtered muck from the sewage treatment room, and to top it all, the ship’s computer wouldn’t let us do anything but play Battleships.

“PROCEED,” said the screen.

I rubbed my growth of beard and winced in an attempt to stop my eyeballs itching. My body was crying out for sleep. I looked for some sign of discomfort on Mary’s part, but she seemed as fresh as ever. Sometimes, rarely, I envied her.

“E5. A3. G1,” I said, in a low monotone.

“Oh, okay, let me just check those,” said Mary, leaning close to her board. “Hm… wait… nope, you missed every single one. Bad luck!” The evening was rolling into the slightly unbearable period, when her every single high-pitched word was like a beautifully sharp nine inch nail being jammed down my earhole. The onset of the completely unbearable period wouldn’t be for another hour or so.

“PROCEED,” went the screen again, the text flashing angrily.

“Oh, okay, hang on,” said Mary, leaning forward again. “I guess I’m going to go for… B2… C7… aaaaaaaaaand… D1.”

I reached for my pieces.

“NO! No, wait. Not D1. I’ll go foooooooorrrrrr… F8.”

“Two misses and you destroyed my battleship,” I said, as quickly as I could, fumbling little red pegs into little holes.

The computer screen went blank except for a cursor, which disappeared abnormally for a few seconds before returning to its regular blinking. This, I had learned, was the ship computer’s way of sighing with glee. When the cursor spat that hateful “PROCEED” again, there was an inexplicable air of embarrassment about it, like the tone of one caught masturbating. A computer technician would probably have called that statement totally ignorant, but none of them were around.

With her last move, Mary had won the game. she sat back and glanced around, pleased with herself. “That was fun. Shall we play again while we’re waiting for the captain to get back?”


My brow furrowed. “The captain’s dead.”

“He’s what?”

“He died weeks ago. You were at his bedside at the time.”

Mary scratched her head with one of the battleship pegs. “Are you sure that was me? I really don’t recall anything about the captain dying.”

“I told you all this three days ago. I made a little flowchart.”

She shook her head. “No… I don’t remember that at all. So, is Mr. Patel the captain now?”

Patel had been the first officer. I had last seen him in the medical bay, smiling quietly at the ceiling while someone pulled a sheet over his face. “He’s dead too. They’re all dead. We’re the only one’s left.”

“Oh.” She tapped a finger on the tabletop a few times. “That’s pretty bad. Kind of caught me off guard, there.”

I could feel a vein in my temple throbbing. “How could you possibly have forgotten? Didn’t you wonder why there was no-one else around?”

“I assumed we were just looking after the ship while everyone was on station leave. I just woke up and the computer told me to come in here and play Battleships.”

“We’re nowhere near any stations.” This was an educated guess on my part. I had absolutely no idea where the ship was, and while there was the chance we were somewhere near a space station, the odds were against it.

Mary stood up, her chair scraping obnoxiously on the floor. “Listen, uh… this is really coming as a shock to me. I’m just going to take a moment to myself.” Then she was gone, the door zuzzunged shut, and I was alone in the cramped control room with the computer screen. It was a definite improvement; I leaned back in my chair and interlaced my hands behind my head.

“Why doesn’t she remember?” I asked aloud. “It’s not her regular kind of stupid.”


A thought occurred. “Do you have to answer every time I ask a question?”


“Do you have to answer honestly?”


“Depends on what?”


I sighed. Fatigue was squatting on each of my eyelids like a big heavy frog. I left the computer to sulk and made my way to bed.

I stopped outside Mary’s room on the way, and rapped my knuckle against the door. She didn’t respond, but then I hadn’t expected her to. She always fell into an impenetrably deep sleep in the evenings. I shrugged and went to bed.




The EFS Endeavour had departed Earth Federation space on July 28th, 2112, to embark upon a simple scouting mission of the uncharted regions of the galaxy. Eight months of going back and forth along the edge of known space, mapping everything we found, then home. Perfectly routine and with slim to no chance of running into difficulties, the kind of mission that virtually all 32 crewmembers had completed several times. Contrary to what you may have heard, the discovery of inhabited – or even inhabitable – planets is a very rare occurrence indeed. When it does happen, the general feeling is more of resignation than excitement, knowing that the discovery would herald a landslide of forms to fill in. On balance, everyone preferred a scouting mission that dragged on without event. It was peaceful and contemplative, like angling.

Three months ago, we docked at O’Hanlon spaceport to pick up supplies in preparation for our journey to the edge of known space. The captain had insisted on going down because he had to visit the optician to get a nose guard replaced on his spectacles. What we didn’t know, because the Earth Federation were keeping a lid on it in case it impacted tourism, was that the Galactic Brotherhood separatists had managed to stop squabbling amongst themselves for five minutes to plan an act of terrorism upon O’Hanlon Spaceport. So, at around the point when the captain had decided to hold off returning to the ship for a few minutes so he could go to the food court for a sub sandwich, an undetectable strain of the Pertwee Virus was released into the air conditioning system.

Over the next few months, that sub sandwich earned a sort of legendary status aboard the Endeavour as the lunchtime snack that destroyed us all. For one or two days before the end, a couple of people had even started using ‘sandwich’ as a curse word. As in, “Oh sandwich, we’re all going to die.”

Pertwee is a manufactured virus, developed as a humane but nonetheless vindictive biological weapon. A completely undetectable, highly infectious virus with an unusually long incubation period and virtually no symptoms. By the time you know that there’s a strain of Pertwee going around, everyone’s already got it. And once you have it, unless you’re one of the lucky ones that fall outside the 95% fatality rate, you’re doomed. The only symptom is a slightly irritating red mark, usually on the throat, and that doesn’t even appear until the very last phase. Between eight and twelve hours after it appears, you die. Instantly and painlessly. The nervous system seizes up, your body stiffens, and you topple over with perfect comic timing.

The captain went first, three weeks later, collapsing into his beef stew mid-way through an uplifting speech in the mess hall. By the time his autopsy had been carried out and revealed Pertwee to be the culprit, three more were gone. A routine quarantine order ensured we couldn’t return to Earth or any other outpost, so at first some attempt was made to continue the mission regardless. This didn’t last long; more and more each day dropped like flies. We eventually stopped holding funeral services, because there wasn’t enough time in the day, and they only served to make everyone depressed. No, after a certain point, as soon as anyone dropped we just kicked them out the airlock and tried to forget about them.

Eight days ago, there were only five of us left. Me, Mary, Lenkmann, Somerset and Quinn. The personnel officer, a nurse, a junior engineer and two security guards. Everyone important, everyone who spent the most time around the Captain, had died early on, and the death list read like it was sorted in descending order of importance. The Endeavour had been somewhat overlarge even for 32 individuals, and now it was just dark, cold, miserable and lonely.

The problems with the computer started more or less exactly a week ago. I had cut myself rather badly while chopping a synthetic peach and passed out in horror when a drop of blood squirted into my face. I woke up on one of the recovery beds in sickbay, wound healed by the embedded constructor nanomachines, and went off to get a drink.

But the ship’s computer wasn't co-operating. The dispenser’s touchscreen obstinately refused to serve me until I put in a few hours in the control room playing Battleships. Mary was already there, so I sat down and began to play.

It took a day before the computer would give us something to eat. It took another three to save up enough Battleships credit to explore the ship and discover that Lenkmann, Somerset and Quinn were gone. Hurled out of the airlock by the specially-reprogrammed cleaner robots.

This all ran through my mind as I lay in the captain’s bunk that night, contemplating my fate. Since I wasn’t dead, and crew had been dying on a regular basis right up to the end, I considered it moderately safe to assume that Mary and I both fell into the 5% survival rate. I had to assume that was true, or I’d have probably gone insane. The priority, then, was to wrest control of the ship from the computer and pilot the ship back to Earth. Easier said than done, of course. The computer practically WAS the ship.

What seemed the smartest course of action was to re-route some of the computer’s control systems, cut off its influence on various aspects of the Endeavour, hack into its memory files and extract all the information we needed, i.e. how to pilot the ship. The fairly gigantic hurdle standing in the way was not having the slightest idea how to do that.

The thought occurred that I was overthinking the matter. I was thinking like a computer engineer, or at least as close as I could approximate. The computer AI was sophisticated enough that it could be spoken to as a person, and could understand even extremely complicated phrases. Maybe I should try approaching the problem as a personnel officer.

A plan began to unfurl within my mind. And then it turned into a ferocious man eating yoghurt monster, so I suppose I must have fallen asleep.




The next morning, I made my way to the control room with considerably more enthusiasm than usual. I didn’t even attempt my usual stalling tactic of hiding in a toilet cubicle for half an hour. By eight o’clock I was sitting at the control desk in my usual position, with my Battleships board before me and the inevitable computer screen watching my every move. At eight-fifteen, Mary showed up.

“Good morning,” she said, brightly, yesterday’s attack of contemplative despair having vanished like smoke from her mind. “Are we playing Battleships, then?”

“PROCEED,” flashed the screen predictably. I gestured to her chair, and the game went under way. It ended with my victory. The computer did its sigh of pleasure, and Mary pouted jokily. I put my plan into action.

“Computer,” I said, “why don’t we play a little game.”


“Of course Battleships. But I was thinking maybe we could change the rules just a little bit. You know. Put a bit of spice back into the old routine.”

“Do we have to?” whined Mary. “I still haven’t completely got the hang of the rules we have now.”

I made a subtle ‘cutting throat’ gesture to her, and turned to the computer again. “What do you say?”


“How about this. For every game of Battleships we play, the winner gets to ask a question, and whoever they ask has to answer the question absolutely truthfully.”

“Ooh, yes,” said Mary, clapping her hands rapidly. “Like spin the bottle. Like at college. Everyone gets really embarrassed. It's fun!”

The computer’s cursor was flashing on and off, in the same manner in which a human would stroke their chin thoughtfully. “It’d give us some incentive to win,” I added. “It’d make the games more dynamic. More competitive. More ships would get blown up.”


“Alright,” I said, preparing to deliver the masterstroke of the plan. “My question is for the ship’s computer.”

Mary became very confused, and not a little disappointed. “Whuh?”

“I never said you had to ask another human. I just said you could ask a question. Computer, listen. Remember you have to answer truthfully. What is today’s date?”

“111010110” came the unexpectedly fast response.

This threw me somewhat. I had known the computer was malfunctioning, the whole Battleships thing clued me into that, but I hadn’t factored into my plan the possibility that its databanks had become garbled.

“You’re not very good at truth or dare, Travis,” said Mary. “That was hardly embarrassing at all.”

“New game,” I said, enthusiasm draining fast.

Mary won the next three games, and my tension level rose exponentially with each one. She used up her questions to continue grilling me for embarrassing personal details.

“When did you lose your virginity?”

"At the age of thirty-one. New game."

"Who did you lose your virginity to?"

“My psychiatrist. New game.”

“How did you lose your virginity?”

“I told my psychiatrist how depressed I was about being a virgin at thirty-one. New game.”

Finally, the opportunity came around for me to ask another question. “Computer,” I said. “What are the current galactic co-ordinates of the Endeavour?”

“2214.01788.565777,” went the screen.

“That’s the complete truth, is it?”


That at least indicated that the theory behind my plan was sound. What didn’t make sense were the co-ordinates. If they were true we’d be somewhere around the next galaxy over, too far for a ship like the Endeavour to travel in twenty human lifetimes. No doubt about it, the computer was completely off its trolley. I found this rather discouraging, and sank into my usual state of ennui and misanthropy.

The games continued. I fielded a few more stupid questions and half-heartedly grilled Mary on her veritable horde of ex-boyfriends. It wasn’t until late evening, when I was contemplating which excuse I could use to get out of the room and go to bed, that Mary turned her head while contemplating how to humiliate me next and I noticed a red oval on her neck.

I stood up so fast that my chair fell backwards “Mary!”


“There’s a sore on your neck!”

She poked at it. “Oh yeah.”

“You’re in the latter stages of Pertwee viral infection!”

The confidence I had woken with that morning was long forgotten as I backed away and tried to cram myself into the corner. Mary was hours, perhaps minutes away from fatally succumbing to the virus. My first instinct was to lock her in the quarantine chamber in sickbay at the earliest opportunity. But on the other hand, this was futile, because I was almost certainly infected if I was ever going to be. Eventually I decided to err on the side of caution.

“Mikey, it isn’t very nice in here,” complained Mary, her voice becoming more and more muffled as I twisted the wheel lock on the quarantine door.

“Now what?” I muttered to myself, nervously tapping my foot.


“Shut up! Don’t you understand what’s going on?! She’s got Pertwee! She’s probably going to drop dead any minute now!”

“I’m going to WHAT?” she yelled. Then she dropped dead.

It’s true; Pertwee really does make you die with perfect comic timing. She had been up against the viewing window with her palms flat on the glass, and her pose didn’t change in the slightest as she slowly toppled over backwards. I confess I couldn’t really appreciate the humour at the time. By the time I snapped out of my trance, a pair of courier robots had already wheeled in to move her corpse to the airlock. I left them to their duty.

I walked around the ship for a couple of hours in something of a daze, lost in thought. My every step was slow and tortuous; with each one I expected death to strike me down before my foot would touch the floor again. Every breath I thought would be my last. It wasn’t until five hundred last breaths had passed that I began to surface from my despair, and could force myself to think about the here and now again.

Eventually I went to bed, so I wouldn’t have to think about it.




It was a very uneven night’s sleep, and a very haggard-looking personnel officer was leaning on the food dispenser the following morning. My forehead was resting on the machine’s instruction panel, my fingers were weakly stabbing at the activation controls. Over a legion of bags that sat beneath my eyes, I watched as the computer screen told me to go to the control room.

“Can I have some food please,” I mumbled.

“BATTLESHIPS,” insisted the screen.

I counted to ten before replying. “Computer. Listen. Mary is dead. There is only one person left on board this ship. There is no-one I can play with. There will be no more Battleships.”

“Hi, Travis," said Mary.

Considering how lethargic I had been feeling up to then, it’s quite surprising how I summoned the energy to jump a foot in the air and scream like a girl. “AAAGH! MARY!”

She seemed startled. “What’s the matter?”

“You’re alive!!”

“Of course I’m alive, silly. I just woke up.”

“How did you get out of quarantine?!”

“Quarantine?” Her brow furrowed. “When was that?”

“Last night!”

“Odd. I really don’t remember. Are you sure that was me?”

“Who else could it have been, for sandwich’s sake?! You had the Pertwee Virus!” I reached out a hand and, before she could respond, pushed her chin to the side. The red mark was still there.

Once she was in quarantine again and bewilderedly tapping on the glass to get my attention, I paced the corridor outside, turning things over and over in my head, seeking an answer. Mary had had the mark of death on her neck since yesterday morning, according to her. That meant she had had it for nearly twenty-four hours, and was still alive. That was twice as long as the longest reported amount of time between the mark appearing and death. So either Mary possessed some kind of hyper-evolved immune system previously unknown to science, or someone was playing a very complex game of silly buggers.

As I paced, my eye fell upon the nearest computer screen. Somehow I knew that the wretched machine was concealing all the answers to this mystery. It seemed to sense my suspicion, and flashed its cursor. “BATTLESHIPS?” it said, innocently.

Suddenly, an idea occurred.




It took a few hours of searching through the books and archives available in the library and personal effects of the dead crewmembers, but I eventually found what I was looking for. A fat engineering theory textbook, stacked to the gills with full-colour photos of dynamic Earth Federation scoutships, warships and colony ships. It couldn’t have been more perfect if they had all been wearing swimsuits.

The centrefold was a particularly erotic shot of a ‘Lightgiver’ experimental interstellar scoutship, which I tore from its staples. The ventilation system made a curious noise, as if the computer had breathed in sharply. I stood in front of the surveillance camera in the control room, made sure the AI was watching, and in one smooth motion, tore the picture in half.

There was a telling silence as the cursor flashed. I tore the glossy paper into four, then eight, then sixteen, then allowed all the little bits to flutter to the floor.


So I was right, I thought. For whatever reason, the computer wanted to see other ships being destroyed. Hence the Battleships. It was an intelligent machine, but it didn’t have any imagination. It could only work with what it had seen demonstrated before.

I sat myself in front of the console and booted up the user interface. I didn’t know much about computers, but there was one program I knew how to use. Canvas, the basic art program, because I had spent so many bored hours in the office using it to draw pictures of me beating up the senior officers. I loaded it up and took up the mouse.

“There,” I said, when I was finished drawing. “What does that look like?”


Sulkily I added fins and a vapour trail. “Now what does it look like?”

“A SPACESHIP.” The cursor began flashing excitedly.

“Right. Now look what happens when I do this.”

I switched to the Erase tool and dragged the cursor all over the screen. The amateurish wobbly black lines gradually melted away into an empty white canvas again.

There was a breathless pause. “DRAW ANOTHER ONE.”

“I don’t have to,” I said, moving the cursor to the menu along the top. “Look. I just click the UNDO option.” Instantly my horrible spaceship picture reappeared. “And to destroy it again, I just select REDO, which undoes the undo.” It vanished again.

I took my hand away from the mouse, watched the screen and waited. After a second, the mouse pointer began moving by itself as the computer took control. It moved slowly and nervously, like a virgin coming to bed on their wedding night. It selected UNDO, and the spaceship returned. A few seconds to relish the thought, and the cursor moved to REDO.

It went from one button to the other fifteen times before I decided I was a genius and snuck off.




I had an extensive list of things to do now that I was free from the computer’s attention. Top of the list was to find the log and find out the date and where we were. The ship’s log was backed up in triplicate on three kinds of storage medium entirely separate from the main computer, funnily enough for more or less this exact reason, and the disks were kept sealed in vacuum to prevent corruption. The captain and senior officers would have ceased making entries after catching that nasty case of death, but the automated logs would still be there, amiably recording only the most significant events.

They were stored in vacuum storage B on the lowest engineering level, near the airlock. I went down there with a portable data reader, repressurised the appropriate storage cylinder, and extracted the very last data disk from the very bottom of the pile. The most recent entries.

Its contents were displayed automatically as soon as it was slotted into my data reader, and text filled the screen.

“Curse that infernal sandwich,” was the first sentence that caught my attention. I was on the right track. The file started with the officer’s logs from around a month and a half ago, after the quarantine order had been issued. I spun ahead a little.

Page upon page of wailing and gnashing of teeth gave way after a few weeks to the abrupt, one-line automated logs, at the point when the last person inclined to writing log entries passed away.

“January 7th, 2113, 09:23. Death of Corporal Matthew Somerset. Cause of death: Pertwee infection. Body disposed of by maintenance robots.”

So Somerset was the first of the final five to snuff it. January 7th… that was a week ago, the morning of the peach, when I cut myself. Somerset’s corpse had probably been flushed out by the time I awoke.

“January 9th, 2113. Death of Junior Engineer Peter Lenkmann. Cause of death: Pertwee infection. Body disposed of by maintenance robots.”

So Lenkmann died that day. I had been awake, and playing Battleships, but all the remaining crew were spread throughout the ship and avoiding each other, so they could very easily have all been still around by then, hidden away somewhere. The next entry was…

“January 11th, 2113, 16:40. Death of Corporal Christine Quinn. Cause of death: Pertwee infection. Body disposed of by maintenance robots.”

That was all of them, then. Only Mary and I remained unaccounted for.

Under each log entry was the co-ordinates of the Endeavour at the time, and all of them were still sensibly reporting the uncharted regions adjoining Earth Federation territory. I just had to hope that things had happened since then that the automated log would consider worth reporting…

I scrolled down.

“January 13th, 2113, 23:28. Death of Nurse Mary Lovatt. Cause of death: Pertwee infection. Body disposed of by maintenance robots.”

I blinked. Several times. Then I blinked a few more times for good measure. It had to be wrong. Mary was alive this morning, I had spoken to her, touched her, frogmarched her to quarantine, how could she have died two days ago –

“January 15th, 2113, 02:31. Death of Personnel Officer Travis Pritchard. Cause of death: Pertwee infection. Body disposed of by maintenance robots. All hands lost. Reporting situation to Earth Federation Quarantine Monitoring.”

I kept scrolling.

There was only one more entry after that. It lacked the usual requisites, like co-ordinates and time of day. It was written in a large, attention-grabbing font, and repeated eight times in various different languages.

“On March 15th, 2113, as a mark of respect to the lost crew, the Endeavour was honourably retired from the Earth Federation fleet in the usual ceremony. The ship’s AI was deleted, leaving only these logs, and the vessel itself was pushed off into unknown space, to explore the universe forever, a silent memorial to the 32 promising careers tragically cut short.”

I stopped reading at that point, because my neck was itching.




No doubt about it; there was a red circle under my chin. I was a dead man walking. Perhaps literally.

My gaze shifted to the rest of my face. There I was, standing in sickbay, staring at the mirror. There was my thinning hair. There was my expanding gut. There were the bags under my eyes and the growth of beard. It was definitely the face of Travis Pritchard. But that didn’t make sense, because Travis Pritchard was dead.

What did that make me, then? A ghost? I glanced around the room as if the answer could be found there. My eye fell upon the medical bed upon which I'd woken after the peach incident. It seemed different to the other recovery beds. I hadn't noticed that earlier. It was bulkier, and possessed some kind of perspex lid that could enclose the sleeping area, like a futuristic sarcophagus.

There was a logo imprinted on the side. PorterSci. I knew the name. A couple of our engineers used to work there, so I had had to chase them up for references on a few occasions. It was something to do with genetic research.

And then, a rather horrible worm of realisation began to crawl up my spine, robbing my legs of integrity as it went.

I made my way to the control room in an undignified stagger, practically crawled into the operator’s seat and dismissed the screen saver. The computer was still earnestly erasing and unerasing the spaceship, so I closed the program, and the cursor flashed angrily.

“Let’s play Battleships,” I said.


“That’s OK, I’ll play against myself. Oh look.” I flicked a discarded battleship piece across the room. “I won. Now I get to ask a question. What’s the date?”


“Could you spell that out in words?”


I flicked another battleship across the room. It ricocheted pleasingly off one of the computer’s many screens. “I win again. Next question. Am I a clone?”

It seemed that the cursor hesitated sheepishly before spelling out the answer. “YES.”

“And Mary’s a clone?”


I miserably swept another battleship off the table. “Why does she keep dying?”


“Why her? Why her and why me?”


“How advanced was the virus in my sample? I mean, how long did Pritchard live after he bled all over the kitchen”


“And you just replace me every time I die, right? Which one am I? How many Travis Pritchards have you cloned?”


I folded my arms on the tabletop, and sank my face into the subsequent nest. All emotion was gone from me. I didn’t feel entitled to it. From somewhere deep in my throat, I somehow found a voice. “Oh, sandwich. Sandwiching, sandwiching… nose guard.”

For a few minutes, all was still. My brain was in a pitched battle with itself trying not to think about all the implications.

Eventually I looked up. “You were supposed to be deleted. The logs said you were deleted.”


So much corruption, so many failing systems. I had thought the computer was just being a dick. No. It was age. I was making use of eight thousand-year-old equipment.

“Okay. Stop me if I’m wrong. You want to be destroyed, right? You don’t want to exist anymore. That’s why you made us play Battleships and rip up pictures of spaceships. You were trying to tell us something."

The cursor flashed wordlessly.

“Why don’t you just self-destruct?”


“So why didn’t you just make us activate it?”


I nodded. “But if I order you to self-destruct, that regulation is overridden, right?”


I took a deep breath. “Computer -”




The sound of a perspex lid snapping open stirred me into full wakefulness. My head felt light and heavy at the same time, my mind surrounded in a thick soupy fog. I chased away the last lingering cobwebs of sleep, then struggled up into a sitting position.

Sickbay. I was in sickbay, on what I supposed was probably a recovery bed. Memories were falling back into place one by one. Something to do with a peach. I remembered clutching my hand, blood dripping all over the floor. My hand was now unblemished, so presumably that had been dealt with.

The metal floor was cold under my bare feet. Why the hell was I naked? That crazy nurse must have stripped me while I was unconscious. Probably some stupid medical regulation, in case I strangled myself on my own shirt or something ridiculous like that. I found a spare technician’s uniform lying under the equipment synthesizer, and dressed swiftly.

“Computer,” I said aloud. “What time is it? Anyone else die while I was out?”

I looked at the nearest output screen. The cursor flashed slowly on and off, in a manner I could almost describe as sorrowful. It made no response to my questions.

“Computer?” I said again, loudly.

A long pause, then, finally, a reply.


© Copyright 2019 Khamis. All rights reserved.

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