Day of the Moron

by H. Beam Piper

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: It's natural to trust the unproven word of the fellow who's "on my side"--but the emotional moron is on no one's side, not even his own. Once, such an emotional moron could, at worst, hurt a few. But with the mighty, leashed forces Man employs now....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

There were still, in 1968, a few people who were afraid of the nuclear power plant. Oldsters, in whom the term “atomic energy” produced semantic reactions associated with Hiroshima. Those who saw, in the towering steam-column above it, a tempting target for enemy--which still meant Soviet--bombers and guided missiles. Some of the Central Intelligence and F.B.I. people, who realized how futile even the most elaborate security measures were against a resourceful and suicidally determined saboteur. And a minority of engineers and nuclear physicists who remained unpersuaded that accidental blowups at nuclear-reaction plants were impossible.

Scott Melroy was among these last. He knew, as a matter of fact, that there had been several nasty, meticulously unpublicized, near-catastrophes at the Long Island Nuclear Reaction Plant, all involving the new Doernberg-Giardano breeder-reactors, and that there had been considerable carefully-hushed top-level acrimony before the Melroy Engineering Corporation had been given the contract to install the fully cybernetic control system intended to prevent a recurrence of such incidents.

That had been three months ago. Melroy and his people had moved in, been assigned sections of a couple of machine shops, set up an assembly shop and a set of plyboard-partitioned offices in a vacant warehouse just outside the reactor area, and tried to start work, only to run into the almost interminable procedural disputes and jurisdictional wranglings of the sort which he privately labeled “bureau bunk”. It was only now that he was ready to begin work on the reactors.

He sat at his desk, in the inner of three successively smaller offices on the second floor of the converted warehouse, checking over a symbolic-logic analysis of a relay system and, at the same time, sharpening a pencil, his knife paring off tiny feathery shavings of wood. He was a tall, sparely-built, man of indeterminate age, with thinning sandy hair, a long Gaelic upper lip, and a wide, half-humorous, half-weary mouth; he wore an open-necked shirt, and an old and shabby leather jacket, to the left shoulder of which a few clinging flecks of paint showed where some military emblem had been, long ago. While his fingers worked with the jackknife and his eyes traveled over the page of closely-written symbols, his mind was reviewing the eight different ways in which one of the efficient but treacherous Doernberg-Giardano reactors could be allowed to reach critical mass, and he was wondering if there might not be some unsuspected ninth way. That was a possibility which always lurked in the back of his mind, and lately it had been giving him surrealistic nightmares.

“Mr. Melroy!” the box on the desk in front of him said suddenly, in a feminine voice. “Mr. Melroy, Dr. Rives is here.”

Melroy picked up the handphone, thumbing on the switch.

“Dr. Rives?” he repeated.

“The psychologist who’s subbing for Dr. von Heydenreich,” the box told him patiently.

“Oh, yes. Show him in,” Melroy said.

“Right away, Mr. Melroy,” the box replied.

Replacing the handphone, Melroy wondered, for a moment, why there had been a hint of suppressed amusement in his secretary’s voice. Then the door opened and he stopped wondering. Dr. Rives wasn’t a him; she was a her. Very attractive looking her, too--dark hair and eyes, rather long-oval features, clear, lightly tanned complexion, bright red lipstick put on with a micrometric exactitude that any engineer could appreciate. She was tall, within four inches of his own six-foot mark, and she wore a black tailored outfit, perfectly plain, which had probably cost around five hundred dollars and would have looked severe and mannish except that the figure under it curved and bulged in just the right places and to just the right degree.

Melroy rose, laying down knife and pencil and taking his pipe out of his mouth.

“Good afternoon,” he greeted. “Dr. von Heydenreich gave me quite a favorable account of you--as far as it went. He might have included a few more data and made it more so ... Won’t you sit down?”

The woman laid her handbag on the desk and took the visitor’s chair, impish mirth sparking in her eyes.

“He probably omitted mentioning that the D. is for Doris,” she suggested. “Suppose I’d been an Englishman with a name like Evelyn or Vivian?”

Melroy tried to visualize her as a male Englishman named Vivian, gave up, and grinned at her.

“Let this be a lesson,” he said. “Inferences are to be drawn from objects, or descriptions of objects; never from verbal labels. Do you initial your first name just to see how people react when they meet you?”

“Well, no, though that’s an amusing and sometimes instructive by-product. It started when I began contributing to some of the professional journals. There’s still a little of what used to be called male sex-chauvinism among my colleagues, and some who would be favorably impressed with an article signed D. Warren Rives might snort in contempt at the same article signed Doris Rives.”

“Well, fortunately, Dr. von Heydenreich isn’t one of those,” Melroy said. “How is the Herr Doktor, by the way, and just what happened to him? Miss Kourtakides merely told me that he’d been injured and was in a hospital in Pittsburgh.”

“The Herr Doktor got shot,” Doris Rives informed him. “With a charge of BB’s, in a most indelicate portion of his anatomy. He was out hunting, the last day of small-game season, and somebody mistook him for a turkey. Nothing really serious, but he’s face down in bed, cursing hideously in German, English, Russian, Italian and French, mainly because he’s missing deer hunting.”

“I might have known it,” Melroy said in disgust. “The ubiquitous lame-brain with a dangerous mechanism ... I suppose he briefed you on what I want done, here?”

“Well, not too completely. I gathered that you want me to give intelligence tests, or aptitude tests, or something of the sort, to some of your employees. I’m not really one of these so-called industrial anthropologists,” she explained. “Most of my work, for the past few years, has been for public-welfare organizations, with subnormal persons. I told him that, and he said that was why he selected me. He said one other thing. He said, ‘I used to think Melroy had an obsession about fools; well, after stopping this load of shot, I’m beginning to think it’s a good subject to be obsessed about.’”

Melroy nodded. “‘Obsession’ will probably do. ‘Phobia’ would be more exact. I’m afraid of fools, and the chance that I have one working for me, here, affects me like having a cobra crawling around my bedroom in the dark. I want you to locate any who might be in a gang of new men I’ve had to hire, so that I can get rid of them.”

“And just how do you define the term ‘fool’, Mr. Melroy?” she asked. “Remember, it has no standard meaning. Republicans apply it to Democrats, and vice versa.”

“Well, I apply it to people who do things without considering possible consequences. People who pepper distinguished Austrian psychologists in the pants-seat with turkey-shot, for a starter. Or people who push buttons to see what’ll happen, or turn valves and twiddle with dial-knobs because they have nothing else to do with their hands. Or shoot insulators off power lines to see if they can hit them. People who don’t know it’s loaded. People who think warning signs are purely ornamental. People who play practical jokes. People who--”

“I know what you mean. Just day-before-yesterday, I saw a woman toss a cocktail into an electric heater. She didn’t want to drink it, and she thought it would just go up in steam. The result was slightly spectacular.”

“Next time, she won’t do that. She’ll probably throw her drink into a lead-ladle, if there’s one around. Well, on a statistical basis, I’d judge that I have three or four such dud rounds among this new gang I’ve hired. I want you to put the finger on them, so I can bounce them before they blow the whole plant up, which could happen quite easily.”

“That,” Doris Rives said, “is not going to be as easy as it sounds. Ordinary intelligence-testing won’t be enough. The woman I was speaking of has an I.Q. well inside the meaning of normal intelligence. She just doesn’t use it.”

“Sure.” Melroy got a thick folder out of his desk and handed it across. “Heydenreich thought of that, too. He got this up for me, about five years ago. The intelligence test is based on the new French Sûreté test for mentally deficient criminals. Then there’s a memory test, and tests for judgment and discrimination, semantic reactions, temperamental and emotional makeup, and general mental attitude.”

She took the folder and leafed through it. “Yes, I see. I always liked this Sûreté test. And this memory test is a honey--’One hen, two ducks, three squawking geese, four corpulent porpoises, five Limerick oysters, six pairs of Don Alfonso tweezers... ‘ I’d like to see some of these memory-course boys trying to make visual images of six pairs of Don Alfonso tweezers. And I’m going to make a copy of this word-association list. It’s really a semantic reaction test; Korzybski would have loved it. And, of course, our old friend, the Rorschach Ink-Blots. I’ve always harbored the impious suspicion that you can prove almost anything you want to with that. But these question-suggestions for personal interview are really crafty. Did Heydenreich get them up himself?”

“Yes. And we have stacks and stacks of printed forms for the written portion of the test, and big cards to summarize each subject on. And we have a disk-recorder to use in the oral tests. There’ll have to be a pretty complete record of each test, in case--”

The office door opened and a bulky man with a black mustache entered, beating the snow from his overcoat with a battered porkpie hat and commenting blasphemously on the weather. He advanced into the room until he saw the woman in the chair beside the desk, and then started to back out.

“Come on in, Sid,” Melroy told him. “Dr. Rives, this is our general foreman, Sid Keating. Sid, Dr. Rives, the new dimwit detector. Sid’s in direct charge of personnel,” he continued, “so you two’ll be working together quite a bit.”

“Glad to know you, doctor,” Keating said. Then he turned to Melroy. “Scott, you’re really going through with this, then?” he asked. “I’m afraid we’ll have trouble, then.”

“Look, Sid,” Melroy said. “We’ve been all over that. Once we start work on the reactors, you and Ned Puryear and Joe Ricci and Steve Chalmers can’t be everywhere at once. A cybernetic system will only do what it’s been assembled to do, and if some quarter-wit assembles one of these things wrong--” He left the sentence dangling; both men knew what he meant.

Keating shook his head. “This union’s going to bawl like a branded calf about it,” he predicted. “And if any of the dear sirs and brothers get washed out--” That sentence didn’t need to be completed, either.

“We have a right,” Melroy said, “to discharge any worker who is, quote, of unsound mind, deficient mentality or emotional instability, unquote. It says so right in our union contract, in nice big print.”

“Then they’ll claim the tests are wrong.”

“I can’t see how they can do that,” Doris Rives put in, faintly scandalized.

“Neither can I, and they probably won’t either,” Keating told her. “But they’ll go ahead and do it. Why, Scott, they’re pulling the Number One Doernberg-Giardano, tonight. By oh-eight-hundred, it ought to be cool enough to work on. Where will we hold the tests? Here?”

“We’ll have to, unless we can get Dr. Rives security-cleared.” Melroy turned to her. “Were you ever security-cleared by any Government agency?”

“Oh, yes. I was with Armed Forces Medical, Psychiatric Division, in Indonesia in ‘62 and ‘63, and I did some work with mental fatigue cases at Tonto Basin Research Establishment in ‘64.”

Melroy looked at her sharply. Keating whistled.

“If she could get into Tonto Basin, she can get in here,” he declared.

“I should think so. I’ll call Colonel Bradshaw, the security officer.”

“That way, we can test them right on the job,” Keating was saying. “Take them in relays. I’ll talk to Ben about it, and we’ll work up some kind of a schedule.” He turned to Doris Rives. “You’ll need a wrist-Geiger, and a dosimeter. We’ll furnish them,” he told her. “I hope they don’t try to make you carry a pistol, too.”

“A pistol?” For a moment, she must have thought he was using some technical-jargon term, and then it dawned on her that he wasn’t. “You mean--?” She cocked her thumb and crooked her index finger.

“Yeah. A rod. Roscoe. The Equalizer. We all have to.” He half-lifted one out of his side pocket. “We’re all United States deputy marshals. They don’t bother much with counterespionage, here, but they don’t fool when it comes to countersabotage. Well, I’ll get an order cut and posted. Be seeing you, doctor.”

“You think the union will make trouble about these tests?” she asked, after the general foreman had gone out.

“They’re sure to,” Melroy replied. “Here’s the situation. I have about fifty of my own men, from Pittsburgh, here, but they can’t work on the reactors because they don’t belong to the Industrial Federation of Atomic Workers, and I can’t just pay their initiation fees and union dues and get union cards for them, because admission to this union is on an annual quota basis, and this is December, and the quota’s full. So I have to use them outside the reactor area, on fabrication and assembly work. And I have to hire through the union, and that’s handled on a membership seniority basis, so I have to take what’s thrown at me. That’s why I was careful to get that clause I was quoting to Sid written into my contract.

“Now, here’s what’s going to happen. Most of the men’ll take the test without protest, but a few of them’ll raise the roof about it. Nothing burns a moron worse than to have somebody question his fractional intelligence. The odds are that the ones that yell the loudest about taking the test will be the ones who get scrubbed out, and when the test shows that they’re deficient, they won’t believe it. A moron simply cannot conceive of his being anything less than perfectly intelligent, any more than a lunatic can conceive of his being less than perfectly sane. So they’ll claim we’re framing them, for an excuse to fire them. And the union will have to back them up, right or wrong, at least on the local level. That goes without saying. In any dispute, the employer is always wrong and the worker is always right, until proven otherwise. And that takes a lot of doing, believe me!”

“Well, if they’re hired through the union, on a seniority basis, wouldn’t they be likely to be experienced and competent workers?” she asked.

“Experienced, yes. That is, none of them has ever been caught doing anything downright calamitous ... yet,” Melroy replied. “The moron I’m afraid of can go on for years, doing routine work under supervision, and nothing’ll happen. Then, some day, he does something on his own lame-brained initiative, and when he does, it’s only at the whim of whatever gods there be that the result isn’t a wholesale catastrophe. And people like that are the most serious threat facing our civilization today, atomic war not excepted.”

Dr. Doris Rives lifted a delicately penciled eyebrow over that. Melroy, pausing to relight his pipe, grinned at her.

“You think that’s the old obsession talking?” he asked. “Could be. But look at this plant, here. It generates every kilowatt of current used between Trenton and Albany, the New York metropolitan area included. Except for a few little storage-battery or Diesel generator systems, that couldn’t handle one tenth of one per cent of the barest minimum load, it’s been the only source of electric current here since 1962, when the last coal-burning power plant was dismantled. Knock this plant out and you darken every house and office and factory and street in the area. You immobilize the elevators--think what that would mean in lower and midtown Manhattan alone. And the subways. And the new endless-belt conveyors that handle eighty per cent of the city’s freight traffic. And the railroads--there aren’t a dozen steam or Diesel locomotives left in the whole area. And the pump stations for water and gas and fuel oil. And seventy per cent of the space-heating is electric, now. Why, you can’t imagine what it’d be like. It’s too gigantic. But what you can imagine would be a nightmare.

“You know, it wasn’t so long ago, when every home lighted and heated itself, and every little industry was a self-contained unit, that a fool couldn’t do great damage unless he inherited a throne or was placed in command of an army, and that didn’t happen nearly as often as our leftist social historians would like us to think. But today, everything we depend upon is centralized, and vulnerable to blunder-damage. Even our food--remember that poisoned soft-drink horror in Chicago, in 1963; three thousand hospitalized and six hundred dead because of one man’s stupid mistake at a bottling plant.” He shook himself slightly, as though to throw off some shadow that had fallen over him, and looked at his watch. “Sixteen hundred. How did you get here? Fly your own plane?”

“No; I came by T.W.A. from Pittsburgh. I have a room at the new Midtown City hotel, on Forty-seventh Street: I had my luggage sent on there from the airport and came out on the Long Island subway.”

“Fine. I have a room at Midtown City, myself, though I sleep here about half the time.” He nodded toward a door on the left. “Suppose we go in and have dinner together. This cafeteria, here, is a horrible place. It’s run by a dietitian instead of a chef, and everything’s so white-enamel antiseptic that I swear I smell belladonna-icthyol ointment every time I go in the place. Wait here till I change clothes.”

At the Long Island plant, no one was concerned about espionage--neither the processes nor the equipment used there were secret--but the countersabotage security was fantastically thorough. Every person or scrap of material entering the reactor area was searched; the life-history of every man and woman employed there was known back to the cradle. A broad highway encircled it outside the fence, patrolled night and day by twenty General Stuart cavalry-tanks. There were a thousand soldiers, and three hundred Atomic Power Authority police, and only God knew how many F.B.I, and Central Intelligence undercover agents. Every supervisor and inspector and salaried technician was an armed United States deputy marshal. And nobody, outside the Department of Defense, knew how much radar and counter-rocket and fighter protection the place had, but the air-defense zone extended from Boston to Philadelphia and as far inland as Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

The Long Island Nuclear Power Plant, Melroy thought, had all the invulnerability of Achilles--and no more.

The six new Doernberg-Giardano breeder-reactors clustered in a circle inside a windowless concrete building at the center of the plant. Beside their primary purpose of plutonium production, they furnished heat for the sea-water distillation and chemical extraction system, processing the water that was run through the steam boilers at the main power reactors, condensed, redistilled, and finally pumped, pure, into the water mains of New York. Safe outside the shielding, in a corner of a high-ceilinged room, was the plyboard-screened on-the-job office of the Melroy Engineering Corporation’s timekeepers and foremen. Beyond, along the far wall, were the washroom and locker room and lunch room of the workmen.

Sixty or seventy men, mostly in white coveralls and all wearing identification badges and carrying dosimeters in their breast pockets and midget Geigers strapped to their wrists, were crowded about the bulletin-board in front of the makeshift office. There was a hum of voices--some perplexed or angry, but mostly good-humored and bantering. As Melroy and Doris Rives approached, the talking died out and the men turned. In the sudden silence, one voice, harshly strident, continued:

“ ... do they think this is, anyhow? We don’t hafta take none of that.”

Somebody must have nudged the speaker, trying without success to hush him. The bellicose voice continued, and Melroy spotted the speaker--short, thick-set, his arms jutting out at an angle from his body, his heavy features soured with anger.

“Like we was a lotta halfwits, ‘r nuts, ‘r some’n! Well, we don’t hafta stand for this. They ain’t got no right--”

Doris Rives clung tighter to Melroy’s arm as he pushed a way for himself and her through the crowd and into the temporary office. Inside, they were met by a young man with a deputy marshal’s badge on his flannel shirt and a .38 revolver on his hip.

“Ben Puryear: Dr. Rives,” Melroy introduced. “Who’s the mouthy character outside?”

“One of the roustabouts; name’s Burris,” Puryear replied. “Wash-room lawyer.”

Melroy nodded. “You always get one or two like that. How’re the rest taking it?”

Puryear shrugged. “About how you’d expect. A lot of kidding about who’s got any intelligence to test. Burris seems to be the only one who’s trying to make an issue out of it.”

“Well, what are they doing ganged up here?” Melroy wanted to know. “It’s past oh-eight-hundred; why aren’t they at work?”

“Reactor’s still too hot. Temperature and radioactivity both too high; radioactivity’s still up around eight hundred REM’s.”

“Well, then, we’ll give them all the written portion of the test together, and start the personal interviews and oral tests as soon as they’re through.” He turned to Doris Rives. “Can you give all of them the written test together?” he asked. “And can Ben help you--distributing forms, timing the test, seeing that there’s no fudging, and collecting the forms when they’re done?”

“Oh, yes; all they’ll have to do is follow the printed instructions.” She looked around. “I’ll need a desk, and an extra chair for the interview subject.”

“Right over here, doctor.” Puryear said. “And here are the forms and cards, and the sound-recorder, and blank sound disks.”

“Yes,” Melroy added. “Be sure you get a recording of every interview and oral test; we may need them for evidence.”

He broke off as a man in white coveralls came pushing into the office. He was a scrawny little fellow with a wide, loose-lipped mouth and a protuberant Adam’s apple; beside his identity badge, he wore a two-inch celluloid button lettered: I.F.A.W. STEWARD.

“Wanta use the phone,” he said. “Union business.”

Melroy gestured toward a telephone on the desk beside him. The newcomer shook his head, twisting his mouth into a smirk.

“Not that one; the one with the whisper mouthpiece,” he said. “This is private union business.”

Melroy shrugged and indicated another phone. The man with the union steward’s badge picked it up, dialed, and held a lengthy conversation into it, turning his head away in case Melroy might happen to be a lip reader. Finally he turned.

“Mr. Crandall wants to talk to you,” he said, grinning triumphantly, the phone extended to Melroy.

The engineer picked up another phone, snapping a button on the base of it.

“Melroy here,” he said.

Something on the line started going bee-beep-beep softly.

“Crandall, executive secretary, I.F.A.W.,” the man on the other end of the line identified himself. “Is there a recorder going on this line?”

“Naturally,” Melroy replied. “I record all business conversations; office routine.”

“Mr. Melroy, I’ve been informed that you propose forcing our members in your employ to submit to some kind of a mental test. Is that correct?”

“Not exactly. I’m not able to force anybody to submit to anything against his will. If anybody objects to taking these tests, he can say so, and I’ll have his time made out and pay him off.”

“That’s the same thing. A threat of dismissal is coercion, and if these men want to keep their jobs they’ll have to take this test.”

“Well, that’s stated more or less correctly,” Melroy conceded. “Let’s just put it that taking--and passing--this test is a condition of employment. My contract with your union recognizes my right to establish standards of intelligence; that’s implied by my recognized right to dismiss any person of ‘unsound mind, deficient mentality or emotional instability.’ Psychological testing is the only means of determining whether or not a person is classifiable in those terms.”

“Then, in case the test purports to show that one of these men is, let’s say, mentally deficient, you intend dismissing him?”

“With the customary two weeks’ severance-pay, yes.”

“Well, if you do dismiss anybody on those grounds, the union will have to insist on reviewing the grounds for dismissal.”

“My contract with your union says nothing whatever about any right of review being reserved by the union in such cases. Only in cases of disciplinary dismissal, which this is not. I take the position that certain minimum standards of intelligence and mental stability are essentials in this sort of work, just as, say, certain minimum standards of literacy are essential in clerical work.”

“Then you’re going to make these men take these tests, whatever they are?”

“If they want to work for me, yes. And anybody who fails to pass them will be dropped from my payroll.”

“And who’s going to decide whether or not these men have successfully passed these tests?” Crandall asked. “You?”

“Good Lord, no! I’m an electronics engineer, not a psychologist. The tests are being given, and will be evaluated, by a graduate psychologist, Dr. D. Warren Rives, who has a diploma from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is a member of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Rives will be the final arbiter on who is or is not disqualified by these tests.”

“Well, our man Koffler says you have some girl there to give the tests,” Crandall accused.

“I suppose he means Dr. Rives,” Melroy replied. “I can assure you, she is an extremely competent psychologist, however. She came to me most highly recommended by Dr. Karl von Heydenreich, who is not inclined to be careless with his recommendations.”

“Well, Mr. Melroy, we don’t want any more trouble with you than we have to have,” Crandall told him, “but we will insist on reviewing any dismissals which occur as a result of these tests.”

“You can do that. I’d advise, first, that you read over the contract you signed with me. Get a qualified lawyer to tell you what we’ve agreed to and what we haven’t. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about? ... No? ... Then good morning, Mr. Crandall.”

He hung up. “All right; let’s get on with it,” he said. “Ben, you get them into the lunch room; there are enough tables and benches in there for everybody to take the written test in two relays.”

“The union’s gotta be represented while these tests is going on,” the union steward announced. “Mr. Crandall says I’m to stay here an’ watch what you do to these guys.”

“This man working for us?” Melroy asked Puryear.

“Yes. Koffler, Julius. Electrical fitter; Joe Ricci’s gang.”

“All right. See to it that he gets placed in the first relay for the written test, and gets first turn for the orals. That way he can spend the rest of his time on duty here for the union, and will know in advance what the test is like.” He turned to Koffler. “But understand this. You keep your mouth out of it. If you see anything that looks objectionable, make a note of it, but don’t try to interfere.”

The written tests, done on printed forms, required about twenty minutes. Melroy watched the process of oral testing and personal interviewing for a while, then picked up a big flashlight and dropped it into his overcoat pocket, preparatory to going out to inspect some equipment that had been assembled outside the reactor area and brought in. As he went out, Koffler was straddling a chair, glowering at Doris Rives and making occasional ostentatious notes on a pad.

For about an hour, he poked around the newly assembled apparatus, checking the wiring, and peering into it. When he returned to the temporary office, the oral testing was still going on; Koffler was still on duty as watcher for the union, but the sport had evidently palled on him, for he was now studying a comic book.

Melroy left the reactor area and returned to the office in the converted area. During the midafternoon, somebody named Leighton called him from the Atomic Power Authority executive office, wanting to know what was the trouble between him and the I.F.A.W. and saying that a protest against his alleged high-handed and arbitrary conduct had been received from the union.

Melroy explained, at length. He finished: “You people have twenty Stuart tanks, and a couple of thousand soldiers and cops and undercover-men, here, guarding against sabotage. Don’t you realize that a workman who makes stupid or careless or impulsive mistakes is just as dangerous to the plant as any saboteur? If somebody shoots you through the head, it doesn’t matter whether he planned to murder you for a year or just didn’t know the gun was loaded; you’re as dead one way as the other. I should think you’d thank me for trying to eliminate a serious source of danger.”

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