Let 'Em Breathe Space!

by Lester Del Rey

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Eighteen men and two women in the closed world of a space ship for five months can only spell tension and trouble--but in this case, the atmosphere was "literally" poisoned.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Five months out from Earth, we were half-way to Saturn and three-quarters of the way to murder. At least, I was. I was sick of the feuding, the worries and the pettiness of the other nineteen aboard. My stomach heaved at the bad food, the eternal smell of people, and the constant sound of nagging and complaints. For ten lead pennies, I’d have gotten out into space and tried walking back to Earth. Sometimes I thought about doing it without the pennies.

But I knew I wasn’t that tough, in spite of what I looked. I’d been built to play fullback, and my questionable brunet beauty had been roughed up by the explosion years before as thoroughly as dock fighting on all the planets could have done. But sometimes I figured all that meant was that there was more of me to hurt, and that I’d had more experience screaming when the anodyne ran out.

Anyhow, whole-wheat pancakes made with sourdough for the ninth “morning” running was too damned much! I felt my stomach heave over again, took one whiff of the imitation maple syrup, and shoved the mess back fast while I got up faster.

It was a mistake. Phil Riggs, our scrawny, half-pint meteorologist, grinned nastily and reached for the plate. “‘Smatter, Paul? Don’t you like your breakfast? It’s good for you--whole wheat contains bran. The staff of life. Man, after that diet of bleached paste...”

There’s one guy like that in every bunch. The cook was mad at us for griping about his coffee, so our group of scientists on this cockeyed Saturn Expedition were getting whole wheat flour as punishment, while Captain Muller probably sat in his cabin chuckling about it. In our agreement, there was a clause that we could go over Muller’s head on such things with a unanimous petition--but Riggs had spiked that. The idiot liked bran in his flour, even for pancakes!

Or else he was putting on a good act for the fun of watching the rest of us suffer.

“You can take your damned whole wheat and stuff it--” I started. Then I shrugged and dropped it. There were enough feuds going on aboard the cranky old Wahoo! “Seen Jenny this morning, Phil?”

He studied me insolently. “She told Doc Napier she had some stuff growing in hydroponics she wanted to look at. You’re wasting your time on that babe, boy!”

“Thanks for nothing,” I muttered at him, and got out before I really decided on murder. Jenny Sanderson was our expedition biologist. A natural golden blonde, just chin-high on me, and cute enough to earn her way through a Ph. D. doing modelling. She had a laugh that would melt a brass statue and which she used too much on Doc Napier, on our chief, and even on grumpy old Captain Muller--but sometimes she used it on me, when she wanted something. And I never did have much use for a girl who was the strong independent type where there was a man to do the dirty work, so that was okay.

I suppose it was natural, with only two women among eighteen men for month after month, but right then I probably liked Doc Napier less than the captain, even. I pulled myself away from the corridor to hydroponics, started for observation, and then went on into the cubbyhole they gave me for a cabin. On the Wahoo, all a man could do was sleep or sit around and think about murder.

Well, I had nobody to blame but myself. I’d asked for the job when I first heard Dr. Pietro had collected funds and priorities for a trip to study Saturn’s rings at close hand. And because I’d done some technical work for him on the Moon, he figured he might as well take me as any other good all-around mechanic and technician. He hadn’t asked me, though--that had been my own stupid idea.

Paul Tremaine, self-cure expert! I’d picked up a nice phobia against space when the super-liner Lauri Ellu cracked up with four hundred passengers on my first watch as second engineer. I’d gotten free and into a suit, but after they rescued me, it had taken two years on the Moon before I could get up nerve for the shuttle back to Earth. And after eight years home, I should have let well enough alone. If I’d known anything about Pietro’s expedition, I’d have wrapped myself in my phobia and loved it.

But I didn’t know then that he’d done well with priorities and only fair with funds. The best he could afford was the rental of the old Earth-Mars-Venus triangle freighter. Naturally, when the Wahoo’s crew heard they were slated for what would be at least three years off Earth without fancy bonus rates, they quit. Since nobody else would sign on, Pietro had used his priorities to get an injunction that forced them back aboard. He’d stuffed extra oxygen, water, food and fertilizer on top of her regular supplies, then, filled her holds with some top level fuel he’d gotten from a government assist, and set out. And by the time I found out about it, my own contract was iron-bound, and I was stuck.

As an astrophysicist, Pietro was probably tops. As a man to run the Lunar Observatory, he was a fine executive. But as a man to head up an expedition into deep space, somebody should have given him back his teething ring.

Not that the Wahoo couldn’t make the trip with the new fuel; she’d been one of the early survey ships before they turned her into a freighter. But she was meant for a crew of maybe six, on trips of a couple of months. There were no game rooms, no lounges, no bar or library--nothing but what had to be. The only thing left for most of us aboard was to develop our hatreds of the petty faults of the others. Even with a homogeneous and willing crew, it was a perfect set-up for cabin fever, and we were as heterogeneous as they came.

Naturally the crew hated the science boys after being impressed into duty, and also took it out on the officers. The officers felt the same about both other groups. And the scientists hated the officers and crew for all the inconveniences of the old Wahoo. Me? I was in no-man’s land--technically in the science group, but without a pure science degree; I had an officer’s feelings left over from graduating as an engineer on the ships; and I looked like a crewman.

It cured my phobia, all right. After the first month out, I was too disgusted to go into a fear funk. But I found out it didn’t help a bit to like space again and know I’d stay washed up as a spaceman.

We’d been jinxed from the start. Two months out, the whole crew of scientists came down with something Doc Napier finally diagnosed as food poisoning; maybe he was right, since our group ate in our own mess hall, and the crew and officers who didn’t eat with us didn’t get it. Our astronomer, Bill Sanderson, almost died. I’d been lucky, but then I never did react to things much. There were a lot of other small troubles, but the next major trick had been fumes from the nuclear generators getting up into our quarters--it was always our group that had the trouble. If Eve Nolan hadn’t been puttering with some of her trick films at the time--she and Walt Harris had the so-called night shift--and seen them blacken, we’d have been dead before they discovered it. And it took us two weeks of bunking with the sullen crew and decontamination before we could pick up life again. Engineer Wilcox had been decent about helping with it, blaming himself. But it had been a mess.

Naturally, there were dark hints that someone was trying to get us; but I couldn’t see any crewman wiping us out just to return to Earth, where our contract, with its completion clause, would mean he wouldn’t have a dime coming to him. Anyhow, the way things were going, we’d all go berserk before we reached Saturn.

The lunch gong sounded, but I let it ring. Bullard would be serving us whole wheat biscuits and soup made out of beans he’d let soak until they turned sour. I couldn’t take any more of that junk, the way I felt then. I heard some of the men going down the corridor, followed by a confused rumble of voices. Then somebody let out a yell. “Hey, rooob!”

That meant something. The old yell spacemen had picked up from carney people to rally their kind around against the foe. And I had a good idea of who was the foe. I heard the yell bounce down the passage again, and the slam of answering feet.

Then the gravity field went off. Or rather, was cut off. We may have missed the boat in getting anti-gravity, if there is such a thing, but our artificial gravity is darned near foolproof.

It was ten years since I’d moved in free fall, but Space Tech had done a good job of training good habits. I got out of my bunk, hit the corridor with a hand out, bounced, kicked, and dove toward the mess hall without a falter. The crewmen weren’t doing so well--but they were coming up the corridor fast enough.

I could have wrung Muller’s neck. Normally, in case of trouble, cutting gravity is smart. But not here, where the crew already wanted a chance to commit mayhem, and had more experience than the scientists.

Yet, surprisingly, when I hit the mess hall ten feet ahead of the deckhands, most of the scientists were doing all right. Hell, I should have known Pietro, Sanderson and a couple others would be used to no-grav; in astronomical work, you cut your eye teeth on that. They were braced around the cook, who huddled back in a corner, while our purser-steward, Sam, was still singing for help.

The fat face of the cook was dead white. Bill Sanderson, looking like a slim, blond ballet dancer and muscled like an apache expert, had him in one hand and was stuffing the latest batch of whole wheat biscuits down his throat. Bill’s sister, Jenny, was giggling excitedly and holding more biscuits.

The deckhands and Grundy, the mate, were almost at the door, and I had just time enough to slam it shut and lock it in their faces. I meant to enjoy seeing the cook taken down without any interruption.

Sam let out a final yell, and Bullard broke free, making a mess of it without weight. He was sputtering out bits of the biscuit. Hal Lomax reached out a big hand, stained with the chemicals that had been his life’s work, and pushed the cook back.

And suddenly fat little Bullard switched from quaking fear to a blind rage. The last of the biscuit sailed from his mouth and he spat at Hal. “You damned hi-faluting black devil. You--you sneering at my cooking. I’m a white man, I am--I don’t have to work for no black ni...”

I reached him first, though even Sam started for him then. You can deliver a good blow in free-fall, if you know how. His teeth against my knuckles stopped my leap, and the back of his head bounced off the wall. He was unconscious as he drifted by us, moving upwards. My knuckles stung, but it had been worth it. Anyhow, Jenny’s look more than paid for the trouble.

The door shattered then, and the big hulk of Mate Grundy tumbled in, with the two deckhands and the pair from the engine room behind him. Sam let out a yell that sounded like protest, and they headed for us--just as gravity came on.

I pulled myself off the floor and out from under Bullard to see the stout, oldish figure of Captain Muller standing in the doorway, with Engineer Wilcox slouched easily beside him, looking like the typical natty space officer you see on television. Both held gas guns.

“All right, break it up!” Muller ordered. “You men get back to your work. And you, Dr. Pietro--my contract calls for me to deliver you to Saturn’s moon, but it doesn’t forbid me to haul you the rest of the way in irons. I won’t have this aboard my ship!”

Pietro nodded, his little gray goatee bobbing, his lean body coming upright smoothly. “Quite right, Captain. Nor does it forbid me to let you and your men spend the sixteen months on the moon--where I command--in irons. Why don’t you ask Sam what happened before you make a complete fool of yourself, Captain Muller?”

Sam gulped and looked at the crew, but apparently Pietro was right; the little guy had been completely disgusted by Bullard. He shrugged apologetically. “Bullard insulted Dr. Lomax, sir. I yelled for someone to help me get him out of here, and I guess everybody got all mixed up when gravity went off, and Bullard cracked his head on the floor. Just a misunderstanding, sir.”

Muller stood there, glowering at the cut on my knuckles, and I could feel him aching for a good excuse to make his threat a reality. But finally, he grunted and swung on his heel, ordering the crew with him. Grundy threw us a final grimace and skulked off behind him. Finally there was only Wilcox, who grinned, shrugged, and shut the door quietly behind him. And we were left with the mess free-fall had made of the place.

I spotted Jenny heading across the room, carefully not seeing the fatuous glances Pietro was throwing her way, and I swung in behind. She nodded back at me, but headed straight for Lomax, with an odd look on her face. When she reached him, her voice was low and businesslike.

“Hal, what did those samples of Hendrix’s show up?”

Hendrix was the Farmer, in charge of the hydroponics that turned the carbon dioxide we breathed out back to oxygen, and also gave us a bit of fresh vegetables now and then. Technically, he was a crewman, just as I was a scientist; but actually, he felt more like one of us.

Lomax looked surprised. “What samples, Jenny? I haven’t seen Hendrix for two weeks.”

“You--” She stopped, bit her lip, and frowned. She swung on me. “Paul, have you seen him?”

I shook my head. “Not since last night. He was asking Eve and Walt to wake him up early, then.”

“That’s funny. He was worried about the plants yesterday and wanted Hal to test the water and chemical fertilizer. I looked for him this morning, but when he didn’t show up, I thought he was with you, Hal. And--the plants are dying!”

“All of them?” The half smile wiped off Hal’s face, and I could feel my stomach hit my insteps. When anything happens to the plants in a ship, it isn’t funny.

She shook her head again. “No--about a quarter of them. I was coming for help when the fight started. They’re all bleached out. And it looks like--like chromazone!”

That really hit me. They developed the stuff to fight off fungus on Venus, where one part in a billion did the trick. But it was tricky stuff; one part in ten-million would destroy the chlorophyll in plants in about twenty hours, or the hemoglobin in blood in about fifteen minutes. It was practically a universal poison.

Hal started for the door, then stopped. He glanced around the room, turned back to me, and suddenly let out a healthy bellow of seeming amusement. Jenny’s laugh was right in harmony. I caught the drift, and tried to look as if we were up to some monkey business as we slipped out of the room. Nobody seemed suspicious.

Then we made a dash for hydroponics, toward the rear of the ship. We scrambled into the big chamber together, and stopped. Everything looked normal among the rows of plant-filled tanks, pipes and equipment. Jenny led us down one of the rows and around a bend.

The plants in the rear quarter weren’t sick--they were dead. They were bleached to a pale yellow, like boiled grass, and limp. Nothing would save them now.

“I’m a biologist, not a botanist--” Jenny began.

Hal grunted sickly. “Yeah. And I’m not a life hormone expert. But there’s one test we can try.”

He picked up a pair of rubber gloves from a rack, and pulled off some wilted stalks. From one of the healthy tanks, he took green leaves. He mashed the two kinds together on the edge of a bench and watched. “If it’s chromazone, they’ve developed an enzyme by now that should eat the color out of those others.”

In about ten seconds, I noticed the change. The green began to bleach before my eyes.

Jenny made a sick sound in her throat and stared at the rows of healthy plants. “I checked the valves, and this sick section is isolated. But--if chromazone got into the chemicals ... Better get your spectroanalyzer out, Hal, while I get Captain Muller. Paul, be a dear and find Hendrix, will you?”

I shook my head, and went further down the rows. “No need, Jenny,” I called back. I pointed to the shoe I’d seen sticking out from the edge of one of the tanks. There was a leg attached.

I reached for it, but Lomax shoved me back. “Don’t--the enzymes in the corpse are worse than the poison, Paul. Hands off.” He reached down with the gloves and heaved. It was Hendrix, all right--a corpse with a face and hands as white as human flesh could ever get. Even the lips were bleached out.

Jenny moaned. “The fool! The stupid fool. He knew it was dangerous without gloves; he suspected chromazone, even though none’s supposed to be on board. And I warned him...”

“Not against this, you didn’t,” I told her. I dropped to my knees and took another pair of gloves. Hendrix’s head rolled under my grasp. The skull was smashed over the left eye, as if someone had taken a sideswipe at Hendrix with a hammer. No fall had produced that. “You should have warned him about his friends. Must have been killed, then dumped in there.”

“Murder!” Hal bit the word out in disgust. “You’re right, Paul. Not too stupid a way to dispose of the body, either--in another couple of hours, he’d have started dissolving in that stuff, and we’d never have guessed it was murder. That means this poisoning of the plants wasn’t an accident. Somebody poisoned the water, then got worried when there wasn’t a report on the plants; must have been someone who thought it worked faster on plants than it does. So he came to investigate, and Hendrix caught him fooling around. So he got killed.”

“But who?” Jenny asked.

I shrugged sickly. “Somebody crazy enough--or desperate enough to turn back that he’ll risk our air and commit murder. You’d better go after the captain while Hal gets his test equipment. I’ll keep watch here.”

It didn’t feel good in hydroponics after they left. I looked at those dead plants, trying to figure whether there were enough left to keep us going. I studied Hendrix’s body, trying to tell myself the murderer had no reason to come back and try to get me.

I reached for a cigarette, and then put the pack back. The air felt almost as close as the back of my neck felt tense and unprotected. And telling myself it was all imagination didn’t help--not with what was in that chamber to keep me company.


Muller’s face was like an iceberg when he came down--but only after he saw Hendrix. Before then I’d caught the fat moon-calf expression on his face, and I’d heard Jenny giggling. Damn it, they’d taken enough time. Hal was already back, fussing over things with the hunk of tin and lenses he treated like a newborn baby.

Doc Napier came in behind them, but separately. I saw him glance at them and look sick. Then both Muller and Napier began concentrating on business. Napier bent his nervous, bony figure over the corpse, and stood up almost at once. “Murder all right.”

“So I guessed, Dr. Napier,” Muller growled heavily at him. “Wrap him up and put him between hulls to freeze. We’ll bury him when we land. Tremaine, give a hand with it, will you?”

“I’m not a laborer, Captain Muller!” Napier protested. I started to tell him where he could get off, too.

But Jenny shook her head at us. “Please. Can’t you see Captain Muller is trying to keep too many from knowing about this? I should think you’d be glad to help. Please?”

Put that way, I guess it made sense. We found some rubber sheeting in one of the lockers, and began wrapping Hendrix in it; it wasn’t pleasant, since he was beginning to soften up from the enzymes he’d absorbed. “How about going ahead to make sure no one sees us?” I suggested to Jenny.

Muller opened his mouth, but Jenny gave one of her quick little laughs and opened the door for us. Doc looked relieved. I guessed he was trying to kid himself. Personally, I wasn’t a fool--I was just hooked; I knew perfectly well she was busy playing us off against one another, and probably having a good time balancing the books. But hell, that’s the way life runs.

“Get Pietro up here!” Muller fired after us. She laughed again, and nodded. She went with us until we got to the ‘tween-hulls lock, then went off after the chief. She was back with him just as we finished stuffing Hendrix through and sealing up again.

Muller grunted at us when we got back, then turned to Lomax again. The big chemist didn’t look happy. He spread his hands toward us, and hunched his shoulders. “A fifty-times over-dose of chromazone in those tanks--fortunately none in the others. And I can’t find a trace of it in the fertilizer chemicals or anywhere else. Somebody deliberately put it into those tanks.”

“Why?” Pietro asked. We’d filled him in with the rough details, but it still made no sense to him.

“Suppose you tell me, Dr. Pietro,” Muller suggested. “Chromazone is a poison most people never heard of. One of the new scientific nuisances.”

Pietro straightened, and his goatee bristled. “If you’re hinting...”

“I am not hinting, Dr. Pietro. I’m telling you that I’m confining your group to their quarters until we can clean up this mess, distil the water that’s contaminated, and replant. After that, if an investigation shows nothing, I may take your personal bond for the conduct of your people. Right now I’m protecting my ship.”

“But captain--” Jenny began.

Muller managed a smile at her. “Oh, not you, of course, Jenny. I’ll need you here. With Hendrix gone, you’re the closest thing we have to a Farmer now.”

“Captain Muller,” Pietro said sharply. “Captain, in the words of the historical novelists--drop dead! Dr. Sanderson, I forbid you to leave your quarters so long as anyone else is confined to his. I have ample authority for that.”

“Under emergency powers--” Muller spluttered over it, and Pietro jumped in again before he could finish.

“Precisely, Captain. Under emergency situations, when passengers aboard a commercial vessel find indications of total irresponsibility or incipient insanity on the part of a ship’s officer, they are considered correct in assuming command for the time needed to protect their lives. We were poisoned by food prepared in your kitchen, and were nearly killed by radioactivity through a leak in the engine-room--and no investigation was made. We are now confronted with another situation aimed against our welfare--as the others were wholly aimed at us--and you choose to conduct an investigation against our group only. My only conclusion is that you wish to confine us to quarters so we cannot find your motives for this last outrage. Paul, will you kindly relieve the captain of his position?”

They were both half right, and mostly wrong. Until it was proved that our group was guilty, Muller couldn’t issue an order that was obviously discriminatory and against our personal safety in case there was an attack directed on us. He’d be mustered out of space and into the Lunar Cells for that. But on the other hand, the “safety for passengers” clause Pietro was citing applied only in the case of overt, direct and physical danger by an officer to normal passengers. He might be able to weasel it through a court, or he might be found guilty of mutiny. It left me in a pretty position.

Jenny fluttered around. “Now, now--” she began.

I cut her off. “Shut up, Jenny. And you two damned fools cool down. Damn it, we’ve got an emergency here all right--we may not have air plants enough to live on. Pietro, we can’t run the ship--and neither can Muller get through what’s obviously a mess that may call for all our help by confining us. Why don’t you two go off and fight it out in person?”


Surprisingly, Pietro laughed. “I’m afraid I’d put up a poor showing against the captain, Paul. My apologies, Captain Muller.”

Muller hesitated, but finally took Pietro’s hand, and dropped the issue.

“We’ve got enough plants,” he said, changing the subject. “We’ll have to cut out all smoking and other waste of air. And I’ll need Jenny to work the hydroponics, with any help she requires. We’ve got to get more seeds planted, and fast. Better keep word of this to ourselves. We--”

A shriek came from Jenny then. She’d been busy at one of the lockers in the chamber. Now she began ripping others open and pawing through things inside rubber-gloves. “Captain Muller! The seeds! The seeds!”

Hal took one look, and his face turned gray.

“Chromazone,” he reported. “Every bag of seed has been filled with a solution of chromazone! They’re worthless!”

“How long before the plants here will seed?” Muller asked sharply.

“Three months,” Jenny answered. “Captain Muller, what are we going to do?”

The dour face settled into grim determination. “The only sensible thing. Take care of these plants, conserve the air, and squeeze by until we can reseed. And, Dr. Pietro, with your permission, we’ll turn about for Earth at once. We can’t go on like this. To proceed would be to endanger the life of every man aboard.”

“Please, Danton.” Jenny put her hand on Pietro’s arm. “I know what this all means to you, but--”

Pietro shook her off. “It means the captain’s trying to get out of the expedition, again. It’s five months back to Earth--more, by the time we kill velocity. It’s the same to Saturn. And either way, in five months we’ve got this fixed up, or we’re helpless. Permission to return refused, Captain Muller.”

“Then if you’ll be so good as to return to your own quarters,” Muller said, holding himself back with an effort that turned his face red, “we’ll start clearing this up. And not a word of this.”

Napier, Lomax, Pietro and I went back to the scientists’ quarters, leaving Muller and Jenny conferring busily. That was at fifteen o’clock. At sixteen o’clock, Pietro issued orders against smoking.

Dinner was at eighteen o’clock. We sat down in silence. I reached for my plate without looking. And suddenly little Phil Riggs was on his feet, raving. “Whole wheat! Nothing but whole wheat bread! I’m sick of it--sick! I won’t--”

“Sit down!” I told him. I’d bitten into one of the rolls on the table. It was white bread, and it was the best the cook had managed so far. There was corn instead of baked beans, and he’d done a fair job of making meat loaf. “Stop making a fool of yourself, Phil.”

He slumped back, staring at the white bun into which he’d bitten. “Sorry. Sorry. It’s this air--so stuffy. I can’t breathe. I can’t see right--”

Pietro and I exchanged glances, but I guess we weren’t surprised. Among intelligent people on a ship of that size, secrets wouldn’t keep. They’d all put bits together and got part of the answer. Pietro shrugged, and half stood up to make an announcement.

“Beg pardon, sirs.” We jerked our heads around to see Bullard standing in the doorway.

He was scared stiff, and his words got stuck in his throat. Then he found his voice again. “I heard as how Hendrix went crazy and poisoned the plants and went and killed himself and we’ll all die if we don’t find some trick, and what I want to know, please, sirs, is are what they’re saying right and you know all kinds of tricks and can you save us because I can’t go on like this not knowing and hearing them talking outside the galley and none of them telling me--”

Lomax cut into his flood of words. “You’ll live, Bullard. Farmer Hendrix did get killed in an accident to some of the plants, but we’ve still got air enough. Captain Muller has asked the help of a few of us, but it’s only a temporary emergency.”

Bullard stared at him, and slowly some of the fear left his face--though not all of it. He turned and left with a curt bow of his head, while Pietro added a few details that weren’t exactly lies to Lomax’s hasty cover-up, along with a grateful glance at the chemist. It seemed to work, for the time being--at least enough for Riggs to begin making nasty remarks about cooked paste.

Then the tension began to build again. I don’t think any of the crew talked to any of our group. And yet, there seemed to be a chain of rumor that exchanged bits of information. Only the crew could have seen the dead plants being carried down to our refuse breakdown plant; and the fact it was chromazone poisoning must have been deduced from a description by some of our group. At any rate, both groups knew all about it--and a little bit more, as was usual with rumors--by the second day.

Muller should have made the news official, but he only issued an announcement that the danger was over. When Peters, our radioman-navigator, found Sam and Phil Riggs smoking and dressed them down, it didn’t make Muller’s words seem too convincing. I guessed that Muller had other things on his mind; at least he wasn’t in his cabin much, and I didn’t see Jenny for two whole days.

My nerves were as jumpy as those of the rest. It isn’t too bad cutting out smoking; a man can stand imagining the air is getting stale; but when every unconscious gesture toward cigarettes that aren’t there reminds him of the air, and when every imagined stale stench makes him want a cigarette to relax, it gets a little rough.

Maybe that’s why I was in a completely rotten mood when I finally did spot Jenny going down the passage, with the tight coveralls she was wearing emphasizing every motion of her hips. I grabbed her and swung her around. “Hi, stranger. Got time for a word?”

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