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Homebrew - A Blog Science Fiction Novel

Hand-tossing pizza in micro-gravity is an art. For one thing, even the slightest push to the side causes the spinning dough to drift away, far more rapidly than it sinks back down.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Homebrew - Chapter Six

Chapter Six
It ain’t Much to Look At

It's dependable and not much to look at but it's mine, it's paid for and it's the only way I can get to work!

December 23, 2011

Points of hard light scattered across his vision, as if a careless jeweler had tossed a bucket of diamond dust on a jet floor. Random specks of red, orange and even blue brightness lent a variety to the image. A white, puffy cylinder drifted into his view. Despite being only eighty-feet by forty feet in size, he couldn't shake the feeling he was staring up at a giant Sta-Puff marshmallow ever so slowly falling down to crush him as he would an ant.
Unlike working out on the OPS power arrays, which were so large as to stretch from one edge of his vision to the other, as J'Shawn approached the closest of the four Sundancer III orbital habitats he and his friends had purchased so many months ago. Out here, he had discovered during O2O flight school, where nothing could block the vastness of space, he felt the loneliness so many of the writers, poets and the older astronauts spoke of. This is where he most felt displaced, unsure, as if he didn't belong. He had been raised in apartments, had been crammed into a dorm room for years. Even on his own, he'd found a single bedroom apartment. Small quarters and tight spaces had defined all of his life, walking or driving outside, he had rarely left the canyons of the city in which he'd been born.
Here, the emptiness, the magnitude ripped from the depths of his mind a fear, and a drive for self-examination he'd never quite known before. The fear came from seeing and understanding the total lack of anything within range of his orbital transfer vehicle. At times, he felt a desperate need to talk to whoever was listening on his assigned channel; he'd even experienced an occasional inability to engage the OTV's engines, to leave the docking bay. Each time, he had managed to calm down by re-doing his voyage checklist, focusing completely upon the task, not hesitating to run the 'execute' command.
Once he was moving, the fear disappeared. But the nature of orbit-to-orbit transfers was such as to ensure plenty of time for introspection. With the sheer simplicity of the OTV design, it could be handled by a single operator/pilot. And UN-OPS chose to specify all but the longest trips be conducted by one pilot, unless the cargo required special handling, in which case a technician rode 'shotgun' in the fold-out jumpseat.
On this trip he was the 'mission specialist', the technician hitching a ride. Along with the four habitats and their attached booster units and storage/garage modules, the sale price had included four older, but quite serviceable crew towboats and two OTVs. According to the manifest transmitted by the sales agents, this habitat held one OTV inside, complete with two grappling arm units. The OTV bringing him out here also carried fuel for his OTV. They would unload the fuel tanks and their shade screen, haul out the OTV and do whatever else was necessary to bring it online. They would also check the habitat's environmental systems.
"Coming up on your new home." Ryk Spoor's voice crackled through his helmet speakers. "Sure is pretty. Say, what do you guys plan on doing with these things? Weren't they part of that orbital hotel that Bigelow Aerospace runs?"
"They were. But Bigelow stripped all the furnishings and most of the room dividers out of these before they let us have them." He paused, wondering just what else he could safely say. Dora had cautioned him against letting people know their plans. "We haven't really decided what we're going to use them for. We've got a few wild ideas, but until we get a better look-see inside, we don't really know."
"Well, if it involves doing a little orbit-to-orbit work, I wouldn't mind picking up a few hours on the side," his fellow OTV pilot said, "strictly cash, if you can afford that."
"Is that you talking... or your bookie?" Ryk was well known for his habit of betting on any professional sports event - and losing so regularly as to leave him borrowing money from any fellow worker who he could badger into it. He had even bet on the outcome of a curling match.
"My bookie, of course." For all his abysmal judgment of sports teams, he was a skilled OTV pilot. They docked at the storage module docking port with the barest of jars. "All out for space habitat G-III 384. Please fold your chairs into the stored position and take all personal luggage with you. Thank you for flying OPS Space Lines."
"Dude, you must have been saving that one for years. If you happen to have any more, please remember, they're not helping your chances of moonlighting for us."
"Duly noted and logged." Spoor completed his shutdown and followed J'Shawn through the top-mounted hatch. "Do you want to check everything out on the hab first, or do you want to pull the fuel tanks and get them stored?"
"Let's get them stored. We'll want them offloaded before I fuel up my OTV, so it makes sense to move them into position now."
"You're the customer." With that, they floated over to the open-frame cargo bay and hooked the pallet containing the fuel canisters out with the articulated arm. Working slow to minimize the probability of damaging the canisters, OTV or habitat, they finished moving and shading the fuel can in a little more than forty-five minutes.
By then, both their air tanks had dropped to less than half of rated capacity. It had been a major design change, but the first work crews had demanded, and got an external connector and an internal pressurized air canister on the later model OTVs. Both Ryk and J'Shawn topped off their breather pack tanks before moving to the individual-entry hatch mounted in the cargo bay hatch. It was a matter of minutes for each to pass through into the bay.
"Wow. This is dark squared." J'Shawn whistled softly as his external helmet lamp painted a small circle of light on the bay's far wall. The rest of the bay, except for the wandering circle formed by Spoor's lamp, remained black, sucking the photons from their lights into the pitch darkness.
"I hope you remember where they put the light switch, because I don't see one."
"Yeah. It's over here, about two feet to the left of the hatch we just crawled through." He turned, scanning the cargo bay's hatch frame. "Here it is, one standard keypad and environment control panel. Lights are now..." he keyed in the correct code, flooding the chamber in harsh brilliance, "on!"
"Geez! You could warn a guy before doing that! I'll be seeing spots for the rest of the trip ho... holy crap!" At that, J'Shawn whirled around. And stopped, facing the object which had caused such eloquence from Ryk.
"Man. Punch me, quick! I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing am I?"
"If you aren't, J'Shawn old man, you must be delusional, because I'm looking at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries OCV 800, Series B, I think."
UN-OPS had chosen to accept the bid from Renault for the construction of the two generations of OTVs. Renault had created a very basic orbital transfer vehicle, capable of hauling approximately 1 metric ton of cargo in the open rear bay, room for a pilot and mission specialist in the unpressurized cabin and having two bow attach points for articulated arms and tow claws. Pushing a five metric ton object, it could thrust for 240 minutes at it's max Isp.
The Mitsubishi OCV 800 resting before them had room for three times the cargo in it's rear bay and had four attach points on the bow. It also featured a command and passenger cabin capable of being pressurized and carrying four passengers plus the pilot and mission specialist. Further, the cargo bay could hold a separate-environment passenger cabin with life-support for 72 hours for eight passengers. And it could boost at max Isp for up to 960 minutes. Looking past the OCV, which held the closed-environment cargo insert, J'Shawn could see one of the passenger modules.
"I don't think you asked for enough fuel."
"No, I didn't, did I?" J'Shawn floated over and ran his gloved hand along it's flank. "I'm going to need a new paint job."
"Paint job? Why in Hell would you want to mar that pristine beauty with a different color?"
"Not color. Colors. I want flames. And an eagle's beak." He rounded on Spoor. "You're not looking at OCV 800 - 1875B."
"I'm not?"
"Of course you're not. You're looking at Screaming Eagle One." J'Shawn turned back to the craft. "And you're mine, all mine. Aren't you baby?"
Ryk's cough brought him back to the present. "That's all well and good, but we've got to get it out of the bay, fueled and we've got to check out the habitat. And we don't have that much time before we both have to return to OPS-1. Are you still planning to fly that one back to the station?"
"Yes, so we better get started."
Opening the cargo bay's main hatch took far less time than they anticipated as the main power system had been in sleep rather than completely powered down. The power meters on the batteries read 143 hours capacity at full load. Which was good because that meant J'Shawn could expect over ten weeks of capacity in sleep mode, plenty of time to install and fuel the fuel cells they had purchased.
Once outside, the two of them drained all the fuel from the canisters into the OCV's tanks.
"Can I watch as you work through the power-up checklist? I've never seen the inside of one of these babies."
"Sure. In fact, I was planning to ask you for help. I figure if you do end up working for us, it would be better if you were checked out on our orbital craft." He opened the hatch and pulled himself inside, saying, "Welcome aboard Screaming Eagle One."
J'Shawn was relieved to see the control panels layout was the same as the OTV's. He'd heard Mitsubishi had submitted a bid for the OTV contract, but now he had confirmation.
"I wonder why UN-OPS didn't go for this vehicle? It clearly meets the needs of the OPS crew."
"J'Shawn, you haven't lived in Europe, so I can understand why you've never experienced this. The UN doesn't like giving contracts to the 'big boys' based in Japan, the US or England. And the only other serious bidder was from France. France is a big deal in the UN, despite everything it does to frustrate the UN's basic goals."
"Then they're stupid."
"How long have you worked for UN-OPS? And you're just now realizing that the UN is stupid?" J'Shawn heard the humor in Ryk's voice. "But there's hope for you. You have me to explain everything."
"Good thing. Because I've never understood the European mind."
"And I've never understood how you Americans can drink American beer. I guess we all have our personal ideosyncracies."
"Go ahead and keep complaining. Keep complaining. Need I point out you guys drink your beer warm?" He kept working his way through the startup checklist. So far all the indicators had come up green, The cabin interior glowed with the emerald light, rendering the reds and magentas of their suit controls a darker gray against the pale blue of their breather packs.
"Beats all Hell out of chilling down near zero just to disguise the lack of character. A real beer doesn't need to freeze the taste buds, it has a character pleasing to the bloody palate. Something you colonials never figured out. Say, could you go back a step?"
J'Shawn reversed his last step, which brought the main display to one of several nested menu screens. "What did you see?"
"There, that last option. Do you see it?" The choice read 'Defensive Systems'.
"I see it, but I don't believe it. Why would anyone put a defensive system on an OCV?" He selected the menu choice. Another screen of options appeared. "Electro-static Discharge Anti-theft System? Kinetic Energy Anti-Intrusion System? Thermal-Optical Collision Elimination System? Automatic Collision Avoidance System? Just what did Mitsubishi expect this thing to have to deal with?"
"Did you notice all but the anti-theft and collision-avoidance systems are listed as 'inoperative/not installed'? Those two are showing up as 'disengaged'. Old chum, I think that means you could turn them on. I'd dearly love to see what that Electro-static Discharge Anti-theft System does, but I'm volunteering you to test it. As for the anti-collision system, it probably acts the same way as the avoidance systems on airliners, or so I would presume."
"You may be right. But I'm not going to turn either on until I've had a chance to read the manuals - thoroughly!" He resumed working through the startup checklist. "I think for now it will be better to get this puppy ready to fly and get some time behind the controls bringing back to OPS-1. You have to admit this is a much nicer crew cabin than on your bird."
"No doubt," the other pilot replied, "but do you think it's wise to bring this close to the station? We don't know what the systems are capable of."
"Yeah, but I have no plans to install either of the two 'inoperative' systems. And I'm not going to turn on the others anywhere near the station. They may be nice options, but have you noticed the rest of the controls and programs are what we have on the OTVs and use the same switches, joysticks and execution commands? This shouldn't be that hard to fly. What do you say to a short flight around the habitats? I'll even let you have some stick time."
He could hear Spoor's breath in his earphones. Long seconds passed. "I'm less worried about rules and regs than many of the other pilots, but we've a bit of a long hike back if anything goes wrong. Still, everything checked out green, and by the gauges we've got enough fuel, even with the paltry bit we dumped in, to go to OPS and back twice. I'm game."
"Great! Then let's do it!" J'Shawn reached for the control yoke.
"Hold on. You didn't let me finish. You colonials are always in a bloody hurry."
At that comment J'Shawn stopped. "What now?"
"How much time do you have flying these crates? The OTVs, I mean?"
"You know I've only the 100 hours they allowed in flight training."
"And have you ever flown aircraft?" Spoor continued. "I'm not trying to be insulting; my questions are relevant."
"No. I wasn't rich enough to afford to pay for lessons," he said, not quite able to hide his resentment at the direction the conversation was taking.
"Well I have. I've got my ticket punched for rotary, single and multi-engine craft and I'm both visual and instrument flight rules certified. The last I looked, I've logged over 2,000 hours down below, in several different types of aircraft. And that's on top of my 1,600 hours of OTV flight time."
"Look, I'm not trying to spoil your fun. But I'd really rather be the one to take us away from your big marshmallow over there. While neither of us has flown one of these crates, I'm the only one who's had real experience in flying different craft. I promise, once we're clear, I'll gladly relinquish the controls to you."
J'Shawn listened through the pulse of his anger. This was, after all, his craft. Still, what Spoor said made sense. And the others would not be happy if he damaged their property the very day they received it.
"Okay. You're right. So why don't you take us out a few hundred meters and get us a bit of elbow room to practice in?" He removed his hands from the controls and watched Ryk ready himself to take control.

* * *

The OCV slowed its tumble, ending the skew-flip maneuver with the engine bells facing along its path, the vibration of the thunderous deceleration burn reaching through the control yoke into J'Shawn's hands. Before he could react to the zero-count flashing onto the main screen, by mashing the cutoff switch, the engines went silent. The sudden cessation of deceleration threw him against the safety harness."
"YEOW! What a blast!" he shouted, staring out the cabin's pilot-side port at the nearby inflatable habitat, now hanging motionless 100 meters from the OCV. "What a rush! This thing can stop on a dime! Did you feel the deceleration? We were pulling almost three-tenths of a G!"
"Do tell. Good thing I wasn't taking a sip of tea, now, wasn't it? Two things. First, I believe you have the hang of flying this beast. Second, I strongly recommend you not attempt any of these high-delta-v hijinks near OPS-1. They'd surely take your ticket away from you. And fire you. And ship your arse back groundside. Now please allow me to catch my breath, slow my heart rate. I'd like a calm, genteel trip back to my ship, if you will."
"One slow, gentle, calming trip coming up. You know, you didn't do so bad yourself. If you decide you still want to moonlight for us, and if any opportunities come up that we can offer you, I am willing to convince the others to hire you. Are you still up for that?" J'Shawn turned to watch his passenger. Once again, the seconds ticked by. While he waited, he set up a course back to the OTV.
"Did you know a group of tow-boat and OTV pilots have been agitating for better working conditions?" Spoor asked. "They're trying to form, of all things, an Orbital Pilots Guild. More emphasis on safety, fewer 12 to 14 hour shifts, better monitoring of flight paths, certain training courses not currently being taught, that kind of thing."
"No. I hadn't heard about this. But then, I just finished flight training two weeks ago and I haven't really gotten to know my fellow pilots. You, on the other hand, have been flying those tow boats and the OTVs for months. If you're not involved with it, I'd still bet you know all about it." While talking, J'Shawn initiated the trip instructions stored in the flight computer. With a soft push, Screaming Eagle One began it's voyage back to the first habitat and the OTV.
"I do. And I support the basic concept. The problem is, management doesn't want it to happen. Which means it won't happen. Or I should say, it won't happen without some sort of fight."
"I'm not one of the organizers, and I haven't formally signed on, but I'm friendly enough with those who are part of the movement that management may well decide I'm not worth keeping around. After all, they know about my wee gambling issue."
"Yeah, but from what I've seen, you keep it under control. You may be a bit short at times, but it's not like you're dropping tens of thousands beyond what you make."
"But I do occasionally drop several hundred beyond my income." Ryk sighed. "And that will be enough. I made the mistake of telling Singhman, in front of about a dozen others, that he was a bloody, hypocritical prick for his judgmental attitude about my gambling. Which means that when, not if, this Orbital Pilots Guild nonsense comes to a head, I'll be run off with them. He's done this to others."
"But that's a side issue to the point I was going to make. You, Dora, Dermot and Ellen are the sole legal owners of those puffy orbital marshmallows and the attached vehicles. You are a licensed orbital pilot, duly certified. And as one of the owners of this bloody wonderful ship, you're the Chief Pilot of your concern."
"So?" J'Shawn couldn't see where this was leading. "Big deal. I'm still a rookie orbital pilot. Machs nichts."
"There's where you're wrong. As owner and Chief Pilot, you have the authority to license other pilots - including myself. Which means you can certify me on this OCV and issue a license, independent of the one I hold through UN-OPS. I rather like the idea of having an orbital pilot's license that can't be pulled by OPS management."
"The Hell you say! It can't be that easy! And you are forgetting I'm not an instructor-pilot."
"But I am. And I just gave you a check flight on an orbit-to-orbit transfer vehicle. Oh sure. It's a bit hincky, but if you and your fellow owners accept the validity of it, your company can issue a license based upon my certification."
Silence descended in the cabin. For the remainder of the journey, each man pondered the words spoken.
As they neared their destination, Spoor spoke up again. "One other pertinent fact. As a duly registered corporation, with offices, personnel and vehicles in orbit, you could also hire yourselves out to OPS. Look it up, it's in the regulations. That puts the onus of meeting safety and training requirements on you, but it also means you can, if things go the way I believe they will, charge whatever the market will bear for services rendered. If possible, I'd like to complete a transfer from employment under UN-OPS to you before the pilots guild idiots get OPS management all stirred up."
After easing to a stop, J'Shawn unbuckled and followed Spoor to the hatch. There, his passenger stopped, hand on the hatch release handle. "Just think about it," he said.
"I will, and if we decide to follow your advice, you'll be the first one we call."
With that, Spoor exited the craft and shot over to his own ship. Once inside, he called out to J'Shawn, "I'm in. Would you hang around a bit until I get this bloody crate fired up?"
"Sure thing. I figured it would be less surprising to flight control if I followed you back home."
"Like some bloody great puppy, you mean?"
"Exactly. And I expect you to go all gushy and wide-eyed-innocent-child on them. Remember, you're trying to win a job with us."
"Right. One sodding innocent waif act coming up. May I assume you're not going to tell them your ship's new name? I do believe 'Screaming Eagle One' has a rather, violent, connotation to it. Not that it's any of my business, of course, but that might make the gushiness sound somewhat... contrived, wouldn't you agree? How about I call it 'Fluffy'?"
"Fluffy?" J'Shawn couldn't restrain a guffaw. "Fluffy! I like it. No. Wait. Call her 'Vuffie'!"
"Vuffy? What the bugger is a 'Vuffy'!" Outraged curiousity echoed in Spoors voice. J'Shawn made his way to the pilot's seat and strapped in as he laughed.
"You mean you've never read the classics?"
"Classics? I've read every single one of Shakespeare's plays, all of Dickinson's works and even Mary Shelly's writings. Nowhere have I ever heard of 'Vuffy'."
"Wrong classics. You need to have read from L. Neil Smith's stories. Specifically, you have to find a copy of "Their Majesties' Bucketeers". And it's spelled 'Vuffie'. That's 'V', 'u', 'f', 'f', 'i' and 'e'."
"Effing colonials. They'll always suprised you. Are you ready? I'm all warmed up and set to go."
"Just finishing setting up my flight plans. There. You can proceed at any time."
"Before we proceed, you might want to check out the reserve channels, make sure they're working. How about we test Reserve Channel Two?"
"Sure." J'Shawn hadn't thought of testing the reserve radio channel. It was most often used by the pilots to chat between themselves during multi-ship operations to relieve the traffic on both the main station-to-ship channels and the standard ship-to-ship channels. "Switching to Reserve Channel Two, now." He activated that radio and set it to channel two. "Can you hear me, Ryk?"
"Loud and clear. Say, while we're hanging out here with no one listening, how about you keep your ship's special features quiet? No need bragging on them, what?"
"You're coming through five by five. Vuffie out."

* * *

The trip back to OPS-1 was uneventful. However, after the powerful acceleration they had put his OCV through during the shakedown flight, the sedate initial push and slow drift to home mandated by UN-OPS regulations left him frustrated. Still, the snail's pace as well as the hint from Ryk to not discuss what he had shared left J'Shawn a great deal of time to review what he had heard, and to make plans.
It took them forty-five minutes to accelerate up to maximum prescribed velocity, travel the five miles to OPS-1 and decelerate down to one-half meter per second, the allowed velocity for close-in maneuvering, that being any maneuver performed within 200 meters of the station. After another six and a half minutes, J'Shawn successfully docked the OCV at his assigned mooring clamp. Before he shut the bird down, he recharged his air supply from the on-board tanks. Then he fished the technical manuals out of the locked cabinet where they had been stored, placing them in a net shoulder bag, called the 'purse' by one and all. Damned if it didn't look like a shoulder purse, he thought, not for the last time.
As he exited the locker room where he had stripped off his helmet and breather pack, he was hailed from behind.
"Williams. J'Shawn Williams." He recognized the voice; it belonged to his shift supervisor, Aaron Solomon.
Turning he replied, "Yes, Aaron? Do you need me?" He hoped this wasn't about an off-schedule flight. The excursion had left him tired and hungry. Solomon pulled even with him.
"I was wondering if you could explain, Williams, that craft you have hanging off the mooring clamp. You stated in your request you would be bringing over an OTV. From the chatter I overheard, it's an OCV. Where did you get it?"
"To tell the truth, Aaron finding it was as big a shock to me as it was to you. The receipts we received stated two orbital transfer vehicles, one of which bore the hull number 1875B. And when I opened up the cargo bay, there she was, an orbital craft, a Mitsubishi OCV class, Series B ship, Orbital Cargo Vessel 1875B. I scanned back through all our records and she's definitely ours."
"We'll have to revise our agreement with you as this is a much more massive vessel than we agreed upon. We may have to change your docking point."
"I'm good with that, even if it means a slightly higher docking fee." He watched Solomon stare at him, expecting a reaction which J'Shawn couldn't begin to guess at. Finally he asked the man, "Is that all? I've only got ten hours until my shift starts and I'd like to catch a meal before I go to sleep."
"Yes. But stop by my office this week so we can make other arrangements."
"Sure thing." He turned and walked away, heading straight for the cafeteria. According to his watch, he had five minutes left to scrounge up his meal.
Later, as he showered in preparation for sleep, he thought back on how Solomon had acted. It was almost as if Solomon expected him to pull a 'better-than-thou' act, simply because he now owned his own ship. And there may have been a bit of fear in the man's eyes. Like he expected J'Shawn to refuse to move to a new docking point or pay higher fees.
The more he pondered, the more he wondered just how bad the feelings between the Orbital Pilots Guild agitators and management had become. Could Ryk be correct? Were the guild people ready to push for greater power?
On the one hand, it could present a wonderful opportunity to hire out his orbital ships to OPS. And that meant better money for all four of them. On the other hand, he sympathized with the pilots. Even with what time he'd spent these past two weeks, he could agree that some of their ideas - they really weren't 'demands' yet, were they? - made sense. And they'd resent him if he 'took' their jobs away by doing 'work-for-hire' for OPS. Still, they would probably already have been fired if OPS decided to throw contract work his way.
The only thing he knew for sure was that either way, he needed to get Dermot, Ellen or Dora up to speed on the OCVs, and he didn't have enough experience to teach them. Which meant they might well take Ryk Spoor up on his plan to be licensed as one of their OCV pilots, an instructor-pilot. Ryk could probably handle the job.
"Damn." he said out loud. "'Vuffie'! That's gonna spread all over the station! May as well make it official." He called up the flight control office on the com line built into his notebook.
"Flight Ops."
"I need to register my ship."
"Your ship? What do you mean? They aren't private property. All ships are owned by UN-OPS. Thus, they're already registered."
"Not this one. It's owned by me and my friends. And it's not one of the OTVs. Look in your records for an OCV, Series B vessel, hull number 1875B."
"I heard rumors about it." the woman continued. "Let me see... Nope, you're already registered. Don't need to do a thing."
"What name does it show?"
"Name? Why would it need a name?"
"Because we own it, not UN-OPS or one of the big multi-national corporations. And I like the idea of it having a name."
"Well, we usually don't, but it appears there is a place on the form for a name. What do you want to call it?"
"Vuffie. That's spelled 'V', 'u', 'f', 'f', 'i' and 'e', Vuffie." He heard a sharp laugh from the other end.
"Are you sure you want to call it that? And not something more noble, like Mighty Emerald Dragon of the Eastern Dawn?"
"Nope. My mind's made up."
"Then 'Vuffie' it is." The woman paused. "Um... Could I take a look sometime at this ship you felt inspired to call 'Vuffie'?"
"Sure thing. Just not tonight. Good night." And he cut the connection.


Anonymous Portugal said...

Hard to believe it's a debut novel, SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep has garnered star reviewed from Kirkus and Booklist and was in development to be adapted into a movie before the book was even released. And though I've read some excellent books this year, I haven't come across a novel that would appeal to so many readers. This book has all the makings of an absolute block buster.

8:59 PM  

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