Alarm Clock

by Everett B. Cole

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Most useful high explosives, like ammonium nitrate, are enormously violent. once they're triggered. But they will remain seemingly inert when beaten, burned, variously punished--until the particular shock required comes along....

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Many years had passed since the original country rock had been broken, cut and set, to form solid pavement for the courtyard at Opertal Prison. And over those years the stones had suffered change as countless feet, scuffing and pressing against once rough edges, had smoothed the bits of rock, burnishing their surfaces until the light of the setting sun now reflected from them as from polished mosaic.

As Stan Graham crossed the wide expanse from library to cell block, his shoe soles added their small bit to the perfection of the age-old polish.

He looked up at the building ahead of him, noting the coarse, weathered stone of the walls. The severe, vertical lines of the mass reminded him of Kendall Hall, back at the Stellar Guard Academy. He smiled wryly.

There were, he told himself, differences. People rarely left this place against their wishes. None had wanted to come here. Few had any desire to stay. Whereas at the Academy--

How, he wondered, had those other guys they’d booted out really felt? None had complained--or even said much. They’d just packed their gear and picked up their tickets. There had been no expression of frustrated rage to approach his. Maybe there was something wrong with him--some unknown fault that put him out of phase with all others.

He hadn’t liked it at all.

His memory went back to his last conversation with Major Michaels. The officer had listened, then shaken his head decisively.

“Look, Graham, a re-examination wouldn’t help. We just can’t retain you.”

“But I’m sure--”

“No, it won’t work. Your academic record isn’t outstanding in any area and Gravitics is one of the most important courses we’ve got.”

“But I don’t see how I could have bugged it, sir. I got a good grade on the final examination.”

“True, but there were several before that. And there were your daily grades.” Michaels glanced at the papers on his desk.

“I can’t say what went wrong, but I think you missed something, way back at the beginning. After that, things got worse and you ran out of time. This is a pretty competitive place, you know, and we probably drop some pretty capable men, but that’s the way it is.”

“Sir, I’m certain I know--”

“It isn’t enough to know. You’ve got to know better than a lot of other people.”

Michaels got to his feet and came around the desk.

“Look, there’s no disgrace in getting an academic tossout from here. You had to be way above average to get here. And very few people can make it for one year, let alone three or four.”

He raised a hand as Stan started to speak.

“I know. You think it looks as though you’d broken down somehow. You didn’t. From the day you came here, everyone looked for weaknesses. If there’d been a flaw, they’d have found it--and they’d have been on you till you came apart--or the flaw disappeared. We lose people that way.” He shrugged.

“You didn’t fall apart. They just got to you with some pretty rough theory. You don’t have to bow your head to anybody about that.”

Stan looked at the heavily barred door before him.

“No,” he told himself, “I don’t suppose I’m the galaxy’s prize boob, but I’m no high value shipment, either. I’m just some guy that not only couldn’t make the grade, but couldn’t even make it home without getting into trouble.”

He pushed the door aside and went into the building, pausing for an instant between two monitor pillars. There was no warning buzz and he continued on his way through a hallway.

He barely noticed his surroundings. Once, when he had first been brought here, he had studied the stone walls, the tiny, grilled windows, the barred doors, with fascinated horror. But the feeling had dulled. They were just depressingly familiar surroundings now.

He stopped at a heavy metal grill and handed a slip through the bars. A bored guard turned, dropped the paper into a slot, then glanced at a viewplate. He nodded.

“All right, forty-two ninety. You’re on time. Back to your cell.” He punched a button and a gate slid aside.

Stan glanced at the cell fronts as he walked. Men were going about their affairs. A few glanced at him as he passed, then looked away. Stan closed his eyes for an instant.


That much hadn’t changed. At school, he had never been one with any of the cadet groups. He had been accepted at first, then coolly tolerated, then shunted to the outer edges.

Oh, he’d had his friends, of course. There were those other oddballs, like Winton and Morgan. But they’d gone. For one reason or another, most of them had packed up and left long before he’d had his final run-in with the academic board.

And there had been Major Michaels. For a while, the officer had been warm--friendly. Stan could remember pleasant chats--peaceful hours spent in the major’s comfortable quarters. And he could remember parties, with some pretty swell people around.

Then the older man had become a forbidding stranger. Stan had never been able to think of a reason for that. Maybe it was because of the decline in his academic work. Maybe he’d done something to offend. Maybe--

He shook the thoughts away, walked to a cell door, and stood waiting till the guard touched the release button.

As Stan tossed his books on his bunk, Jak Holme raised his head and looked across the cell.

“More of them books?”

“Yeah.” Stan nodded. “Still trying to find out about this planet.”

“You trying to be some kinda big politician when you get out?” Holme snorted.

“Tell you, be better you try mixing with the guys, ‘stead of pushing ‘em around with that fancy talk, making ‘em jump now and then, see. You get along with ‘em, you’ll see. They’ll tell you all you need. Be working with some of ‘em, too, remember?”

“Oh, I don’t try to push anybody around.” Stan perched on his bunk. “Doesn’t hurt anyone to study, though.”

“Oh, sure.” Holme grimaced. “Do you a lot of good, too. Guy’s working on some production run, it helps a lot he knows why all them big guys in the history books did them things, huh?” He laughed derisively.

“Sure it does! What they want, you should make that fabricator spit out nice parts, see?” He swelled his chest.

“Now me, I got my mind on my business, see. I get out of here, I oughta make out pretty good.” He looked around the cell.

“Didn’t get no parole, see, so I get all the training. Real good trained machinist now, and I’m gonna walk out of here clean. Get a job down at the space-yards.

“Machinist helper, see? Then, soon’s I been there a while, I’ll get my papers and go contract machinist. Real good money. Maybe you’d do better, you try that.”

From the lower bunk, Big Carl Marlo laughed softly.

“Sure, kid, sure. You got it all made, huh? Pretty quick, you own Janzel Equipment, huh? Hah! Know what happens, you go outside?

“Sure, they give you a job. Like you said, helper. They pay enough you get a pad and slop to keep you alive. That’s all you get.”

“Aw, now listen!” Holme started up.

Marlo wagged his head. “You go for papers, see? Naw! Got no papers for jailbirds. Staffman’ll give you the word. He gets through pushing you around, you go back, ‘counta you don’t know nothing else.”

He laughed shortly.

“Gopher, that’s you. You go fer this, and you go fer that. Slop and a pad you get.” He swung out of his bunk.

“Oh, sure, maybe they put you on a fabricator. Even let you set it up for ‘em. But that don’t get you no extra pins.”

Holme shook his head.

“Councilor gave me the word,” he said stubbornly. “They need good machinists.”

“Yeah.” Marlo nodded. “Sure, they want graduates down at Talburg. But they ain’t paying ‘em for no contract machinist when they can keep ‘em as helpers.” He turned.

“Ain’t that right, Pete?”

Karzer looked up from a bag he was packing.

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right, Carl. I know a few guys once, tried playing the legit. Got kicked around, see? Low pay. Staffman hammering on ‘em all the time. Big joke when they try to get more for themselves.

“Yeah, big joke. They get blamed, they bust something, see, so they owe the company big money.” He looked critically at a pair of socks.

“So they get smart after a while. Dusted around the corner and went back on the make. Do better that way, see?

“Naw, they give you a lot of guff, you go to work outside, work hard, keep your nose clean, you come out of parole and you’re in the money. It’s sucker bait, is all. Don’t go like that, see.”

Marlo came closer to Holme.

“Naw, you go out clean, see, just like you say. Then you play it easy. Get a good score and lay back for a while. Don’t go pushing your luck.

“That’s how they hook me, see. I get too hungry. Get a nice touch, it looks so good I gotta go back for seconds, and they’re waiting. I don’t make that mistake again.” He shook his head.

“Got me a nice pad, way up valley. Gonna hole up there. Go out, pull a good job, then I lay around, maybe a year and think up another. Then, when I’m all ready, I go out, pull a can or two open and lift what they got back to the pad. Ain’t gonna be no more of this scuffling around, hitting a quick one and running out to spend the pins quick, so’s I can get in no traps.”

He looked at Holme thoughtfully.

“I just now think of something, kid. You can make yourself a nice bit, real easy. Don’t cost hardly nothing to set up and there ain’t much risk. You work more’n a year, learning all about tools, huh? They teach you all about making tools, huh?”

“Sure.” Holme laughed shortly. “Got to make all your own hand tools before you get through. Why?”

Marlo grinned broadly.

“I could tell you a lotta guys, need real special tools. Need tools you don’t buy in no store, like maybe a good can opener a guy can carry easy. And they pay real good, you make what they want and keep your mouth shut.” He rubbed his chin.

“Nice,” he went on. “Real nice. And all you need is maybe a few tools you can buy anywhere. And maybe you gotta build up a little forge. Guy knew his way around, he could make a nice pile that way.”

Stan looked at the man thoughtfully.

“Sounds interesting,” he broke in, “but suppose they find some fabricator operator out in the woods, heating up metal instead of working on a regular job? They’d be curious, don’t you think? Especially if the guy’s already picked up a record.”

“Naw.” Marlo turned toward him. “So he’s a graduate--who ain’t? See, they show this guy up here, he’s supposed to be a fabmeister. Only maybe he don’t like punching keys. Maybe he don’t like to chase them meters, huh? So maybe he’d rather use muscle hardware, see?” He grinned.

“Some guy sets himself up a shack up valley, see? Starts a fixit joint. Looks real legit. Even with muscle hardware, he can put out jobs faster’n them people can get parts from way down Talburg way, see.

“And he gets in with the joes, too. They got their troubles getting things made up for ‘em. So this guy gives them a hand. Even working cheap, he picks up some change there, too, and one way or another, the guy’s got a living, see?” He glanced back at Holme.

“Only now and then, here comes a few guys in the back door, they want a special job, see, for real special pay. And there’s your ice cream and cake. And maybe a little stack for later on.”

“I don’t know.” Stan picked up a book. “I’d rather try playing ‘em on the table for a while. It might beat getting flashed and dropped back in.”

Big Carl shrugged and crawled back into his bunk.

“Aagh, can happen to anybody,” he said. “Just keep this under your hair. Smart kids like you can make out pretty good, you just use your heads. Ain’t nothing down Talburg way, though.” He yawned.

“Well, I’ve had it. Got into it with that Wanzor again, out on the pile. Give one of them joes a boost, he gets three meters high.” He yawned again and turned toward the wall.

Stan flipped the pages of the book. He had still been unable to put his finger on the point at which Kellonia had ceased to be a planet of free citizens and become the planetary prison he had found himself on.

There had been no sudden change--no dramatic incident, such as the high spots in the history of his native Khloris. Here, things had just drifted from freedom to servitude, with the people dropping their rights as a man discards outworn clothing.

He leaned back, lowering the book. Kell’s planet, he remembered, had been one of the first star colonies to be founded after the discovery of the interstellar drive. Settlers had flocked to get passage to the new, fertile world.

During the first three hundred years, people had spread over the planet, but the frontier stage had passed and the land of promise had stabilized, adopted laws, embraced the arts and sciences. One by one, frontier farms had given way to mechanized food-producing land, worked by trained technical teams and administered by professional management.

Kellonia had entered the age of industrialized culture, with the large individual owner a disappearing species.

Unnoticed and unregretted, the easy freedom of the frontier was discarded and lost. One by one, the rights enjoyed by the original settlers became regarded as privileges. One by one, the privileges were restricted, limited by license, eliminated as unsuitable or even dangerous to the new Kellonian culture.

Little by little, the large group became the individual of law and culture, with the single person becoming a mere cipher.

Members of groups--even members of the governing council itself--found themselves unable to make any but the most minor decisions. Precedent dictated each move. And precedent developed into iron-hard tradition.

In fact, Stan thought, the culture seemed now to be completely self-controlled--self-sustaining. The people were mere cells, who conformed--or were eliminated.

Again, he picked up the book, looking casually through its pages. Detail was unimportant here. There was, he realized with a feeling of frustration, only a sort of dull pattern, with no significant detail apparent.

He awoke a little groggily, looked around the cell, then jumped hastily out of his bunk. Usually he was awake before the bell rang.

Pete Karzer was coming back from the washstand. He looked over.

“You up, Graham?” he said in his whispery voice. “Hey, you know I’m getting out this morning. Guess you’ll want to swap blankets again, huh?”

“That’s right, too. No use turning in a good blanket, is there?”

“Don’t make sense.” Pete massaged the back of his neck.

“Never could figure that swap,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, it was real good, being able to sleep warm, but you caught me good when I tried to swipe that blanket of yours. Ain’t never seen a guy move so quick. And I ain’t so dumb I don’t know when I’m licked.” He grinned ruefully.

“So I’m down, like I been hit with a singlejack. Then you go and hand over a good blanket for that beat thing I been using. How come?”

Stan shrugged. “I told you,” he said. “Where I come from, it’s a lot colder than it is here, so I don’t need a blanket. I’d have offered a swap sooner, but I didn’t want to look like some greasy doormat.”

“Wasn’t no grease about that swap.” Pete grinned and rubbed his neck again. “I found out real quick who was the big man. Where’d you learn that stuff anyway?”

“Oh, picked it up--here and there.” Stan glanced down at the floor.

There would be no point in explaining the intensive close combat training he’d been put through at school. Such training would make no sense to his cellmates. To the good citizens of Kellonia, it would seem horrifyingly illegal. He glanced up again.

“You know how it is,” he went on. “A guy learns as he goes.”

Big Carl Marlo swung his legs over the side of his bunk.

“Looks like you learned real good,” he said. He examined Stan.

“Pete tells me about this deal. I kinda miss the action this time, but Pete tells me he’s got the blanket and he’s all set to plug you good, you should maybe try a hassle.

“Only all at once, you’re on him. He feels a couple quick ones, then he don’t know nothing till next day. You can maybe do things like that any time?”

Stan shrugged. “Guy never knows what he can do till he tries. I know a few other tricks, if that’s what you mean.”

Marlo nodded. “Yeah. Know something, kid? Ain’t no use you waste your time being no fabricator nurse. You got a good profesh already, know what I mean?”

Stan looked at him questioningly.

“Sure.” Marlo nodded. “So you come here, like maybe you’re a tourist, see. But the joes get you and they bring you up here. Going to teach you a trade--fabricator nurse, see. Only they don’t know it but you’re one guy they don’t have to teach, ‘counta you got something better. All you gotta do is find your way around.”

“I have? Do you really think...”

“Sure. Look, there’s a lot of antique big-timers around, see. These old guys figure they need some guy can push the mugs. Pay real good, too, and they couldn’t care less you’re a graduate. Maybe makes it even better, see. You get in with one of those old guys, you got it made. All legit, too. Oughta look into that, you get out.”

Stan smiled. “The first day I was on this planet, they went through my bags while I was out looking over the town. They found a paper knife and a couple of textbooks.” He shrugged.

“So I came back to the hotel and someone hit me with a flasher. I came to in a cell.” He glanced around.

“Somebody finally told me they’d given me two to five years for carrying a dangerous weapon and subversive literature. Now what would I get if I went out and really messed some guy up?”

Marlo waved a hand carelessly.

“Depends on who you work for,” he declared. “You got the right boss, you get a bonus. Worse the guy’s gaffed, the bigger the payoff, see?”

Stan reached for his bag of toilet articles.

“That’s legitimate?”

“Sure.” Mario smiled expansively. “Happens all the time. Even the big outfits need musclers. Staffmen, see? Sorta keep production up.

“Lot of guys get real big jobs that way. Start out, they’re Staff Assistance Specialists, like they roust the mugs when they got to. Then pretty quick, they’re all dressed up fancy, running things. Real good deal.” He shrugged.

“Need a heavy man once in a while, even in my business. Like maybe some guy’s got a good pad, he doesn’t want a lot of prowlers shaking up the neighbors. You know, gets the law too close, and a guy can’t work so good with a lot of joes hanging around. Might even decide to make a search, then where’d you be?” He spread his hands.

“But there’s some Johnny Raw, keeps coming around. And maybe this is a pretty rough boy, you can’t get on him personal, see. So the only answer, you get some good heavy guy to teach this ape some ethics. Lotta staffmen pick up extra pins this way.”

“I think I get the idea. But suppose the law gets into this deal?”

Marlo spread his hands. “Well, this is a civil case, see, so long as the chump don’t turn in his ticket. So, anything comes up, you put an ambassador on the job. He talks to the determinators and the joes don’t worry you none. Just costs a little something, is all.”

Pete looked up from his packing, a smile twisting his face.

“Only trouble, some of these big boys fall in love with their work. This can get real troublesome, like I pick up this five to ten this way.

“See, they get this chump a couple too many. So, comes morning, he’s still in the street. Real tough swinging a parole, too. I’m in here since five years, remember? So I’m real careful where I get muscle any more.”

“Sounds interesting.” Stan nodded thoughtfully.

“Great Space and all the little Nebulae,” he said to himself. “What kind of a planet is this? Nothing in the histories about this sort of thing.” He walked over to the washstand.

“Some day,” he promised himself, “I’m going to get out of here. And when I do, I’ll set up camp by Guard Headquarters. And I’ll needle those big brains till they do something about this.”

There was, he remembered, one organization that should be able to do more than a little in a case like this. He smiled to himself ruefully as he thought of the almost legendary stories he had heard about the Federation’s Special Corps for Investigation.

As he remembered the stories, though, corpsmen seemed to appear from nowhere when there was serious trouble. No one ever seemed to call them in. No one even knew how to get in touch with them. He shrugged.

The men of the Special Corps, he remembered, were reputed to be something in the superhuman line.

For a large part of his life, he had dreamed of working with them, but he had been unable to find any way of so much as applying for membership in their select group. So, he’d done the next best thing. He’d gone into the Stellar Guard. And he’d lasted only a little more than three years.

Somehow, he’d taken it from there. He was still a little hazy as to how he’d managed to land in prison on Kell’s planet. It had been a mere stopover.

There had been no trial. Obviously, they had searched his luggage at the hotel, but there had been no discussion. He’d simply been beamed into unconsciousness.

After he’d gotten to Opertal, someone had told him the length of his sentence and they’d assigned him to the prison machine shop, to learn a useful trade and the duties of a citizen of Kellonia.

He smiled wryly. They had taught him machinery. And they’d introduced him to their culture. The trade was good. The culture--?

His memory slid back, past the prison--past the years in Kendall Hall, and beyond.

He was ten years old again.

It was a sunny day in a park and Billy Darfield was holding forth.

“Yeah,” the boy was saying, “Dad told me about the time he met one of them. They look just like anyone else. Only, when things go wrong, there they are, just all at once. And when they tell you to do something, you’ve had it.” He closed his eyes dreamily.

“Oh, boy,” he said happily, “how I’d love to be like that! Wouldn’t it be fun to tell old Winant, ‘go off some place and drown yourself’?”

Stan smiled incredulously. “Aw, I’ve heard a lot about the Special Corps, too. They’ve just got a lot of authority, that’s all. They can call in the whole Stellar Guard if they need ‘em. Who’s going to get wise with somebody that can do that?”

Billy shook his head positively. “Dad told me all about them, and he knows. He saw one of ‘em chase a king right off his throne once. Wasn’t anybody to help him, either. They’ve got all they need, all by themselves. Just have to tell people, that’s all.”

With a jerk, Stan came to the present. He slopped water over his hands.

“Too bad I can’t do something like that myself,” he thought. “I’d like to tell a few people to go out and drown themselves, right now.” He grinned ruefully.

“Only one trouble. I can’t. Probably just a lot of rumor, anyway.”

But there was something behind those stories of the Special Corps, he was sure. They didn’t get official publicity, but there were pages of history that seemed somehow incomplete. There must have been someone around with a lot more than the usual ability to get things done, but whoever he had been, he was never mentioned.

He shrugged and turned away from the washstand.

“Hope that bell rings pretty soon,” he told himself. “I’d better get chow and go to work before I really go nuts.”


A demonstrator had the back off from one of the big Lambert-Howell sprayers. As the man started to point out a feed assembly, another prisoner stepped directly in front of Graham.

Stan shook his head impatiently and moved aside. Again, the man was in front of him, blocking his view. Again, Stan moved.

The third time the man blocked his view, Stan touched his shoulder.

“Hey, Chum,” he said mildly, “how about holding still a while. The rest of us would sort of like to see, too.”

For several seconds, the other froze. Then he whirled, to present a scowling face.

“Who you pushing around, little rat? Keep your greasy paws to yourself, see.” He turned again, then took a sudden, heavy step back.

Stan moved his foot aside and the man’s heel banged down on the stone floor. For a heartbeat, Stan regarded the fellow consideringly, then he shook his head.

“Stay in orbit, remember?” he told himself. He moved aside, going to the other side of the group around the fabricator.

Now he remembered the man. Val Vernay had been working on the fabricators when Stan had come to the shop.

Somehow, he had never run an acceptable program, but he hung around the demonstrations, unable to comprehend the explanations--resentful of those who showed aptitude.

He glanced aside as Stan moved, then pushed his way across until he was again in front of the smaller man. Stan sighed resignedly.

Again, the heavy foot crashed toward the rear. This time, the temptation was too great. Deftly, Stan swung his toe through a small arc, sweeping Vernay’s ankle aside and putting the man off balance.

He moved quickly away, further trapping the ankle and getting clear of the flailing arms.

For a breathless instant, Vernay tried to hop on one foot, his arms windmilling as he fought to regain his balance. Then he crashed to the floor, his head banging violently against the stones.

Stan looked at the body in consternation. He had merely intended to make the fellow look a little silly.

“Hope he’s got a hard head,” he told himself.

The workroom guard came up warily.

“What’s all this?”

“I don’t know, sir.” Stan managed a vaguely puzzled look. “First thing I knew, he was swinging his arms all over the place. Then he went down. Maybe he had a fit, huh?”

“Yeah.” The guard was sardonic. “Yeah, maybe he had a fit. Well, no more trouble out of him for a while.” He raised his voice.

“Hey, you over by the first-aid kit. Grab that stretcher.”

Big Carl Marlo was in his bunk when Stan came into the cell. He looked up with a grin.

“Hey, kid, you start at the top, huh?”

“What do you mean?”

“This Vernay, what else? Like I said, you start at the top. I didn’t think you got it when I told you about the muscle racket. How’d I know you was already figuring something?” Marlo shook his head admiringly.

“Real nice job, too. You take it easy, set this chump up, and there you are. Only you get a real big fish. Think you can handle this guy again?”

Stan blinked. “Look,” he said, “punch in some more data, will you? And run it by real slow. I’m way off co-ordinates.”

“Huh? What you--Oh, I get you.” Marlo frowned.

“Now don’t go telling me you don’t know about this Vernay. Don’t give me you ain’t figured how you can land a big job with Janzel Equipment. You know me--Big Carl. I don’t talk, remember?” He looked at the blank expression on Stan’s face.

“Besides, there ain’t a guy in the walls, don’t figure this deal by now. Man, you just don’t know how many guys been watching that Vernay.”

Stan walked across the cell and sat down on his bunk.

“Look,” he said patiently, “let’s just say I’m some stupid kid from off planet. Maybe I don’t get things so well. Now, what’s this all about?”

Marlo shrugged. “So all right, but for some guy don’t know what he’s doing, you sure pick ‘em pretty. Well, anyway, here’s the layout.

“See, this guy, Vernay, is one of Janzel’s big strong-arms. Real salt and butter guy. Been pushing them poor apes of theirs all over the place, see. Don’t know too much about the business, but they tell him some mug’s not putting out, Vernay goes over and bends the guy around his machine a while, he should maybe work faster. See what I mean?”

Stan frowned distastefully and Marlo held up a hand.

“Oh, that’s all right,” he said. “This is what they pay this guy for. But he gets to like his work too well, know what I mean? So here a while back, he gets on some machine tender. Leans all over this poor guy. Well, the fab nurse ends up turning in his tickets, and this, the joes don’t go for so good.” He jerked a shoulder.

“Oh, Janzel tries to kill the squawk, but it’s no go. The joes push the button and here’s Vernay.” He grinned.

“They manage to get it knocked to some kinda manslaughter, but Vernay’s still got time to pick up, so they pull wires and get him up here. It ain’t no rest home, but it ain’t no madhouse neither, like some of them places.” His eyes clouded.

“Oogh, when I think of some of the holes--” He waved a hand.

“So anyway, like you see, Vernay’s got plenty of muscle, but he’s kind of low in the brain department. Maybe they thought something might drill through the skull up here, but that don’t work either. I guess Janzel’d about as soon get another pretty boy, but they know they’ll lose too much face, they dump him right away.

“Then you come along and just about split the chump’s conk just so’s he’ll stay out of your light, see?” He shook his head slowly.

“Only thing, that don’t solve nothing. He comes out of the bone-house in a couple days, and he ain’t gonna like you at all. See what I mean?”

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