Newtron and the Jumpgate: Chapters 11 – 20

by Newtron

Chapter eleven – Swarmbusters

New Dawn headquarters station; Amananth sector:

By his own calculations, Pilot Quilland was three-fifths human and two-fifths cybernetic machine. He had been a strong-willed youth and had been anxious to leave home and get right into the space program.

Unaware of the cellular modifications required of pilots who use the gravity-altering Jump Gate system, he had stowed away on a ship making a transit and had been badly injured by the process.

Luckily, due to the trauma, he didn’t remember the actual accident and the TRI surgeons had done a remarkable job of patching him back up, using off-the-shelf cybernetic hardware. Looking at him now, you could hardly tell which arm was the prosthetic one (it was the one he was holding the beer in). Now, he wrinkled his mostly plastic brow, as he asked LupinOne if he’d heard him correctly.

“Sabotage?” Quilland asked.

“Well, what do you think happened to the CLAWS?” mocked his buddy Backspace, grinning behind his back. “Space cooties?”

Off to the side, pilot Bones sagely shook his head at the two.

“I ment human sabotage,” repeated Quilland, then added, “you dink.”

“Take it easy, you guys.” chided LupinOne gently, “It just seems awfully suspicious, after all, if it had been the Conflux messing around with the beacons, I would have expected to find the CLAWS array in pieces, not just malfunctioning.”

“Well,” offered Backspace,” it is mostly thousand-year-old electronic bits held together with some TRI bailing wire and duct tape. How reliable could it be?”

“Dr Vandagriff said those DSS artifacts we used never failed in the tests,” answered Robo29, “I’ve had plenty of artifacts installed in my ships, never had one go bad on me.”

“I agree,” continued LupinOne, “which brings us back to sabotage. I know it sounds unlikely, but what are the alternatives?”

“And just who would be nuts enough to monkey with those beacons in Conflux space?” asked Robo29. “Hell, when we put those beacons together we had a ton of escort. And why the heck would anyone want to sabotage them anyway? They’re to keep track of the flux for cryin’ out loud, not like they’re spying on any human activity out there.”

Bones cleared his throat. “What about that crazy old Phoenix Rising squad, weren’t they anarchists or something? Or Rastamon, he thinks he’s fightin’ for the friggin’ flux.” The others laughed. “Or what about some new “anarchist” squad, like the Foundation, some sort of anti-TRI gang. And while we’re talking about it, how about the Sentients? They’re smart, maybe they know something about electronics.”

“I think TRI put the boot to those Phoenix guys,” said Backspace, “and I think Rastamon’s more likely to put a nuke into a beacon than he is to try tinkering with one. The Sentients attack stations, so maybe despite the array’s shielding, they’re damaging the beacons too, but like Lupin said, if it was Conflux they’d probably wreck the whole beacon, not bug-up the electronics.” he paused for a moment to let that sink in.

Backspace continued, “Now I’ve never met one of these Foundation pilots or seen their ships, so I can’t comment on what their problem is. And, they’d have to be pretty gutsy guys to fly deep into flux space just to mess with the beacons. If it isn’t flux, it must be sabotage.”

“I agree.” said their Commander, “which is why I’ve contacted Ambrosius of the Brotherhood.”

The assembled group lharmonized, and let out a collective moan. Quite a few eyes rolled.

“May I ask why?” asked Backspace in mock horror.

“To provide security,” LupinOne stated simply, “they’re the best.”

“Or the worst,” mumbled Robo29. “They’re a bunch of killers, very efficient killers.”

“They’re honorable,” replied the Commander, “and maybe we could use some very efficient killers on this one.”

Backspace shook his head and spoke up, “I thought the Magellan project was supposed to bring the squads and factions together. Lot of good CLAWS is gonna do TRI, if everyone starts shooting at everybody else; might as well let the flux take over. Putting CLAWS security in the hands of the Brotherhood will make it look like we don’t trust the other squads.”

“Yeah, sends the wrong message,” agreed Robo29, “we could watch the arrays ourselves.”

“And what would you do if someone like Phoenix Rising or this Foundation squad shows up with a half dozen heavy fighters?” asked LupinOne reasonably. “I can’t think of better flux-fighters than you guys, but you’re not really practiced dogfighters anymore — that takes totally different tactics. I don’t want any of you guys getting hurt.”

“Aw boss,” kidded Backspace. Robo29 fluttered his eyelids at the Commander. “Didn’t know you cared.”

“We’ll leave this to the experts,” continued LupinOne stifling a smile.

“I thought we were experts.” Robo29 whispered to Bones.

Chapter twelve – The Brotherhood of the Stone

Quantar space, Ekoo’s Stop sector, there was a massive, military-gray privately owned space station, known as the “Stone Temple”. It was home to the fierce combat squad “the “Brotherhood”.

In a dark, smokey gathering hall, the “experts” were drinking a few Quantar Ices Pilot Spork had brought along a few cases of Solrain Stout just in case the supply of Ices ran low.

“Hamalzah favors the faithful.” intoned Ambrosius, leader of the squad.

Everyone took their seats and tried to appear attentive for this official squad business meeting.

“Well,” started the Commander from the head of the table, “you’ve all read the inquiry from New Dawn concerning security for the CLAWS project — any thoughts?”

Spork was the first to speak up. “And just why should we help ND?” he asked. “It’s not like we need their money or anything. Don’t we have enough of our own projects to handle?”

“And,” growled Tesrend, “it would be really, really boring.”

They all nodded. To combat pilots, the very idea of the interminable inactivity involved with performing sentry duty was almost physically painful.

“I agree,” added Lego. “Sentry duty’s the worst. Just sitting and staring at the stars, triming your nails, playing solitare. There must be lots of other pilots out there they could hire to guard their precious beacons — you can count me out.” Spork raised his glass. “Hell, the space stations are full of out-of-work pilots with nothing better to do.”

Ambrosius waited for them to settle down, then continued. “Anyone else have an opinion on the subject at hand?” The assembled group collectively shrugged.

“I think we should do it.” said pilot Shadowlord from the back.

“Fine,” replied Lego, “you can do it.” The rest made similar noises.

Once again Ambrosius waited for the group to quiet down, then he continued. “And why do you say that, Brother Shadow?”

“Well,” Shadowlord appeared introspective for a moment as he arranged his thoughts, then explained, “it’s sort of a PR thing. A lot of squads worked together on this Magellan project — mapping the Conflux sectors, finding rare artifacts they needed, and so on — then TRI got the CLAWS up and running, so it would look good if we helped out, too.”

Tesrend regarded his squad-mate with a sobering stare. “And why the hell do you care what a galaxy full of posers and wannabees think?” he asked, “Or do you have some inferiority complex you’d like to share with the rest of us?”

“Yeah, Brother Shadow needs to be loved,” kidded Spork; others laughed.

Ambrosius spoke up in Shadowlord’s defense. “Many of the Brotherhood helped out with the Magellan project too, spent a lot of time on CLAWS, or had you all forgotten about that?”

“Fine,” interjected Spork, “we already helped, duty done, case closed, Brownie points all around.”

“CLAWS is a spy-on-the-flux sort of thing,” added Lego, “that’s all New Dawn, let them deal with sitting on their butts and watching their beacons.” There was a lot of agreement on this among the rest of the group.

“Hell,” drawled Tesrend, “any three of us here has killed more flux then all of New Dawn put together.”

“I think Brother SingleShot’s looking for work,” joked Spork, referring to a squad member of theirs, absent from the meeting. “Why not give him a call? Maybe he’ll baby-sit CLAWS for them.” More laughter.

Ambrosius cleared his throat and put his drink down; presently they all finished talking amongst themselves and he once again had their attention.

“LupinOne thinks perhaps a renegade squad, like Phoenix Rising, or this Foundation might be responsible. Or maybe Rastamon is back to no-good and had something to do with the sabotaging of the beacons.”

“Kick all their asses on my worst day,” quipped Lego.

“Or,” continued Ambrosius, ignoring the interruption, “perhaps someone new is behind it. Nevertheless he thinks it could involve some pilot versus pilot situations — our specialty.”

“So we wait around for days and days, until someone shows up, maybe some bad guys, maybe a flux hunter just passing through. We say boo, they run away, then what? More sentry duty, boring, boring, boring,” repeated Tesrend.

Ambrosius cleared his throat and got their attention.

“Well try to work up some enthusiasm for the idea,” he said, “because I told LupinOne we’d do it.” then, raising his voice, “Hamalzah favors the Faithful.”

“Hamalzah favors the Faithful.” they mumbled.

Chapter thirteen – A reasonable question

The Solrain Station in Wake, near the planet Hellion, is primarily a trading post, a repair facility, and a relay point for Solrain transport pilots into Octavius and neutral space. However, it houses offices and laboratories used by the TRI-BCS for it’s investigation of Conflux. The station is many times larger than any POS, and while not as large as the Solrain Core station, it’s certainly busier, as it’s nearer the galactic shipping lanes. The station appears as an enormous angular white disk, with a flight-traffic-control “wing” suspended over one edge. On any particular day, many thousands of people inhabit the station — a virtual city in space. Every possible comfort is provided for the resident population, as well as the many visiting pilots.

Many people are full time residents — service personnel, traders, bankers, scientists and retired pilots. And there are many restaurants and military commissaries available for their convenience.

“What do you think,” asked Dariel, a young woman seated at a commissary table, “plausible?”

Her question was directed to the pair of pilots seated on the other side of the table. Delphince, a humanoid bipedal porpoise laid the folder down and took off his reading glasses, seated next to him the Lady Dracoe, covered from head to toe in a white burka. Besides being a TRI pilot, the Lady was a teacher and diplomat. After a moment she too set down the several pages she’d been going over. They waited as the party at the next table got up to leave, giving them some measure of privacy in the noisy commissary.

“So, Dar, you think the flux are telepathic,” Delphince said slowly. “That’s not a new hypothesis; I’ve suggested the same thing many times before, myself.”

Dariel leaned across the table and pointed to some illustrations on one of the pages.

“It’s not that I think they’re telepathic, whatever that phrase really means,” she responded evenly, “it’s just that some of their anatomy that I’ve been able to examine doesn’t make sense when you try to understand what makes these creatures function. There’s no reasonable explanation in the TRI-BCS library to explain these anomalous systems; just look at my analysis for the energy distribution of their power-generating systems and the requirements the flux’s various functions require.”

Lady Dracoe leaned forward and studied the indicated passages. “You’re talking about power?” she asked.

“Yes,” Dariel brightened, “The Conflux generate huge amounts of power through some organic fusion system we don’t quite understand, but it’s easy to trace where that power goes. That part I have no problem with.”

“Well, they do possess weapons as powerful as the ones we use, even though theirs are organic.” agreed the diplomat.

“And their propulsion system, also organic, allows them to fly at speeds even greater than our ships. And they generate some sort of effective shielding,” added Delphince. “Again Dar, this is nothing new, what’s your problem?”

The young researcher sat forward holding up one hologram which detailed the Conflux internal “organs”.

“These structures –” she indicated some ropelike images on the hologram, “they lead from the organic power source, and they appear to be part of the Sentient Conflux central nervous system — all Conflux have them, but they’re especially well developed in the Sentients. They lead to a large organ I haven’t been able to identify; it’s not a weapon, has nothing to do with propulsion or their shields, so I was wondering if perhaps it’s a directed communications device of some sort.”

“A natural radio transmitter?” asked Lady Dracoe.

“Well, we’ve picked up radio signals from the Sentient Conflux,” added Delphince, “they’ve often broadcast radio threats while attacking pilots in station sectors, but whatever method the flux use to communicate with other flux, it isn’t a radio frequency. We’d have picked that up.”

Dariel shook her head. “I never suggested it was,” she pointed out the nerve bundles again, “but there is a tremendous capacity to carry power here. And to direct it, power that great has many interesting implications.”

“Such as?” asked Lady Dracoe. “Our ships have even larger power plants, and we radio each other all the time.”

Dariel shook her head, “Not the same thing. Our radios only use an small amount of the power the ships generate. We take advantage of the universe’s background gravity waves to transmit and receive instantaneous signals across interstellar distances. Gravity is instantaneous and it requires very little power for us to piggy-back our signals on those waves.”

“Are you giving us a basic physics lesson?” asked the porpoise.“I think the three of us know how subspace radio works.”

“Yes,” continued the researcher, “but as I said we use a comparatively small amount of power to communicate by radio. The Sentient Conflux have the capacity to be dumping gigawatts of power into whatever communications net they use. Yet we haven’t picked that up? How could we avoid it? It should saturate the com-net.”

“Maybe they’re just not as efficient as we are,” suggested the Lady, “they are organic after all.”

Delphince, whose anatomy prevented him from shaking his head, blew a puff of fish-scented air from the top of his head. He paused, composing his thoughts. A group of young pilots saluted as they walked by.

“But the Conflux are very efficient,” he said, “marvels really. So what’s your point Dariel? Why show us all this? Why not just publish it?”

The young lady spread her hands in exasperation. “I will try to publish it, but honestly nobody in my department seems interested in this sort of thing. The bottom line is if it isn’t directly related to killing flux, TRI just isn’t interested. Perhaps if I was working on a viral weapon or something like that, this would get some attention.” She paused for a moment, then, “You’re my friends, I just wanted to show it to someone who’d read it.”

“I suppose it would get more attention if you had come up with some conclusions.” Responded Delphince logically, “As it is you’ve really just raised more questions.”

The young researcher shook her head. “Implications.” She stated simply.

“Such as?” asked the porpoise.

Dariel pointed back to the ho lo, “This notochord — for want of a better word — of the Conflux, this nerve bundle running from the ganglion-like mass we assume is their brain is spliced into this bundle of fibers running from their power source. This bundle is thicker than my leg.” She paused to let that sink in.

“It runs to an internal mass that looks like a structure we assume to be an organic radio, even ordinary non-Sentient Conflux have versions of this.” She paused again to let her audience catch up.

“In the Sentients,” Dariel continued, ” this nerve bundle is as large as the one that powers their lasers. Yet as you’ve pointed out, we’ve never received any indication of radio signals between them. Frankly, if they did use this to broadcast on any radio frequency we could pick up, they’d fry every TRI receiver in a sector with the power they have available.”

“Maybe they just modulate the signal really well,” said Delphince.

“And so?” asked Lady Dracoe. “Maybe this organ is like our appendix, and the Conflux don’t use it anymore.”

“Or,” said Dariel, “we haven’t been listening when they have used it.” She paused for a moment, then, “Or, they haven’t been using it in our presence — yet”

Chapter fourteen – A seat of power

In the General Manager’s office in the Solrain Core station, GM Istvan stretched across his desk and turned off his intercom. He then sat back in his chair and looked up at the tall, uniformed man standing in front of his desk. “Well, Lupin I can tell you for certain that the members of Phoenix Rising have all been incarcerated,” said the General Manager.

“As an active squad it no longer exists.” He continued evenly, “And as for Rastamon, the TRI has administered a bounty towards his capture and his political rating will be affected negatively of course, but there is not much more we can do, officially.”

“What about this Foundation squad?” asked the New Dawn commander. “I looked them up on the squad registration web page and the membership roster is listed as classified.”

Istvan shrugged. “Yes, well, there are a number of squads that have requested that their membership be classified — nothing unusual there, standard operating procedure really.”

“Even if they’re performing criminal activity?” asked LupinOne.

“Yes.” responded Istvan slowly. “Of course criminal activity is a legal definition. You have only vague suspicions. I can hardly violate the law and divulge classified information even to you in this regard; that would really be a Ministry of Justice issue.”

“But they have registered themselves as an anti-TRI squad,” argued the commander, “surely they should be investigated.”

Istvan looked confused. “For what? It is not illegal to disagree with the current political administration, or choose to express those opinions in a public forum. This squad’s stated views are on public record yes, but again, without actual proof of criminal activity there is nothing I or anyone else in TRI can do. This is for everyone’s protection, Lupin. We can not pick and choose to whom the law applies — civil liberty and all that. Besides, you do not even know if this squad is involved in your CLAWS problem do you? From what you are saying this is all hypothetical. You suspect sabotage, perhaps it is the Conflux, after all those beacons are in their space.”

LupinOne shook his head. “Not their style, Istvan. The squids would just try to destroy the beacons if they realized they posed them some threat.”

“Some other squad then?” asked the GM reasonably. “There have been so many turf-wars over the years it is hard to keep track of them all.”

LupinOne regarded the General Manager and realized a lot of the pilot squad’s issues must seem simply petty from his perspective. Istvan had held the job of General Manager since before Lupin had entered TRI service. He had become a friend over the years, and he’d always been nothing if not sincere. Still, it was this very detached point of view of Istvan’s that would make it hard for him to appreciate the situation from the squad’s angle. The commander looked down at the piles of official folders and papers awaiting Istvan’s attention and realized the sacrifice the GM was making, just to take the time to talk to him on this matter. It was Lupin’s responsibility not to waste Istvan’s time and to make this case. He pointed towards the paperwork.

“Tax stuff?” he asked kindly.

“Phew!” Istvan threw his hands in the air in a rare display of emotion. “Do not get me started, Lupin. It is the whole economy — inflation is out of control, the pilots are practically printing their own money at this point, and yet they all blame it on the tax structure.”

LupinOne stifled a smile while trying to put his and Istvan’s problems in context. “What is wrong with the economy then?” he asked innocently.

“Trade!” the GM stated emphatically. “Or rather the lack-there-of. Clever pilots buying-out all of one station’s commodities, moving them to another station long enough for the prices to rise, then bringing it back to the original station and selling for a windfall profit. That is not proper trade. It certainly does not encourage manufacturing.” He shrugged and waved to a hologram of the galaxy behind his desk. “Trade should be considered a patriotic endeavor, promoting a healthy economy, to keep the stations stocked in case of emergencies.”

“What emergencies?” asked LupinOne, sorry now he had brought the whole thing up.

“Well, war, famine effecting home worlds — that sort of thing,” answered Istvan, shrugging a little hesitantly.

“Istvan, there are no real wars,” explained LupinOne, “just turf battles as you said, and they blow over pretty quickly. And I’ve never seen a real shortage that wasn’t created by some market-manipulator.” He paused and noticed a shiny metal model of a kraken on the GM’s trophy shelf. “With the exception of the Conflux there is no real threat to the galaxy. They’ve been the cause of any shortages we have.”

“And you and New Dawn have done a marvelous job of containing them, of course,” said the GM, smiling.

“I’m not fishing for a compliment, Istvan,” said the commander.

“What would you like me to do Lupin? Something I can do, that is.”

The New Dawn commander thought for a moment, gazing out the window at an arching wing of the vast, white Solrain Core station visible from the office they were in. “How about assigning some of those aggressive station security-drones to guard the beacons?” he asked reasonably.

The GM shrugged and shook his head. “The CLAWS array is a quasi-private venture. That would be setting a precedent, a slippery slope I am not prepared to start down. What if other squads started requesting TRI security for their private endeavors?”

“Private endeavor?” the New Dawn commander blinked in surprise, “CLAWS was a joint TRI-squad project for galactic security!”

Istvan shook his head again. “TRI and the TRI Security and Defense Ministry’s authority does not extend to Conflux space. That will be an issue to be decided at future Council talks. TRI extended technical help to the squads in this matter, but it is really a squad project. Frankly, until Conflux space has been thoroughly mapped, we can not say that some unknown human faction does not currently reside there and may claim ownership. TRI can not simply declare that it falls under its jurisdiction. There are many legal steps that need to be addressed.”

LupinOne shook his head in surprise and confusion. “You mean to tell me that the TRI has no further interest in CLAWS? I find that hard to believe.”

“Of course we are interested,” soothed the GM, “But we can be no more officially involved than we have been.”

“Well what do the Governors and Emperors say?” asked LupinOne waving at the many framed photographs decorating the walls of Istvan’s office. “I’m sure they must have opinions on how TRI’s resources are allocated for galactic defense.”

“It is really more an Executive Council issue.” shrugged Istvan. “The politicians are big-picture people. They introduce policy and some legislation, they lobby for funding, but they do not really become involved in decisions at the working level.”

”Well,” said LupinOne evenly, “as a GM you’re on the Executive Council — this falls in your lap.”

Istvan shook his head again. “I am one member, and policy decisions such as this take a great deal of time to argue over. You are really better off pursuing this from the private sector. Deal with the other squads and, perhaps in time, TRI will work out a new policy on the issue, but I would not hold my breath.”

The New Dawn commander nodded slowly. “Well I appreciate you’re taking time to discuss this with me. I guess I hadn’t fully grasped the balance between the government and private sector in something like this. Still doesn’t seem logical.”

”Welcome to bureaucracy,” chimed the GM. “I am really sorry I can not help you Lupin, you know I would if I could.”

“Thanks Istvan.”

“Really it is all about setting precedents,” said the General Manager.

LupinOne sighed, “Maybe it’s time TRI set some new ones.”

“Well, run for office and maybe you can introduce some of your own.” suggested Istvan with a smile.

“I’ll stick to fighting the Conflux, thanks.” replied the pilot also smiling, then added, “I’ll just keep pestering you when I need something.”

“Well it was nice talking to you anyway, Lupin,” said Istvan, while reaching for a button on his desk.

“Thanks, you too, Istvan,” responded LupinOne, then his image abruptly vanished.

Chapter fifteen – Confirmation

LupinOne finished reading the contents of a folder marked CLASSIFIED; it was a beacon traffic report. He handed it back to the pilot across the desk — Solrain combat-specialist Waarthog.

“That’s it then,” the junior officer said. “A trio of Foundation squad ships entered the Depths sector shortly before the CLAWS malfunction. No other vessels through the area recently, except New Dawn. That sort of throws reactor-coolant on the whole ‘maybe-it-was-flux’ idea.”

LupinOne was impressed. The beacons reported directly to TRI, which passed along any information concerning Conflux movements to New Dawn. But vessel traffic information was proprietary — considered classified TRI material.

“Good work getting a hold of that report, Hog,” said the commander with a smile. “I hope it didn’t cost you too much.”

“Nah,” replied Waarthog, “couple cases of Sol Stout.”

“Well, take it out of petty cash,” laughed LupinOne.

“I didn’t have to buy them,” corrected the officer, “I had to drink ’em.”

Chapter sixteen – Politicians

“I’ve just had a squad leader request an audience,” said Solrain governor Hantor Rebenios, “something about security issues. Do you have any idea what this is about?”

Istvan stifled a groan and shifted in his seat; he disliked these little question-and-answer conversations he often had with the various governors, and he had a pretty good idea who the squad leader might be. “May I ask the squad leader’s name?”

The governor seemed to think for a moment — an exaggerated effort Istvan was sure — designed to make the matter appear beneath his attention. “I believe it was Lupin-something.”

“Ah,” said the GM, “Fleet Commander LupinOne of New Dawn.”

“Yes, that sounds right.”

“In that case, I believe it is concerning the Magellan project – CLAWS — sir,” answered Istvan. “He believes insurgents are sabotaging the space beacons.”

“Really?” the governor responded, “and just what does he expect me to do about that?”

The General Manager walked a fine line here — he needed the governor to respond diplomatically towards the New Dawn commander. He didn’t want him to embarrass LupinOne with an outright refusal. Istvan liked the commander, and he knew the governor’s natural predisposition regarding business affairs. He expected Rebenios to give a negative bureaucratic response towards anything that might involve having to make policy decisions that could appear contentious. And everything involving the pilot squads tended to appear contentious.

“Well, sir, the Commander feels a rival squad may be responsible for the acts of sabotage, but the membership of the squad in question is classified. He would probably like your help to gain access to that information.” Istvan added, “I explained TRI policy concerning privacy issues, but he apparently feels the need to explore other avenues.”

The GM was sure the governor was stifling a yawn.

“Again, General Manager, what does this squad leader expect me to do? Either you’ve explained the situation to him or you haven’t.”

Istvan shrugged. “As I said, he is probably just exploring other official channels.” Then added, “Sir, New Dawn is an important squad and LupinOne a well respected leader; we should not dismiss him too readily.”

The governor surprised Istvan by actually appearing to take the issue seriously for a moment, then surprised him again by apparently reaching an official decision; “I agree.”

Almost visibly shocked, Istvan was suddenly very curious at the uncharacteristic decisiveness. “You do?” Then quickly added, “I mean very good, sir.”

“Yes,” continued the governor, “but it would set a bad precedent for me to meet with a squad leader on a security matter — not the proper channel. I would like you to take charge of the situation.”

Of course you do, thought the GM, then aloud; “But sir, I have already had a conversation with LupinOne concerning the privacy issues; I assured him my hands are tied, that there was nothing I could do.”

Rebenios leaned forward and fixed the GM with a stare, his voice boomed, “You can make a personal appearance in Amananth, that’s where he’s from right?” Then a new thought hit him and he visibly brightened. “Come to think of it, that would look very good in the press too, take the other GM’s along, and make it an official inquiry into the matter. After all, it’s been a while since there was an official TRI visit to the outlying provinces; it would look good come election time and help settle this matter once and for all.”

Istvan was stunned, he stammered, “But, what do you want me to do? I can not change the law.”

“You can be diplomatic,” ordered the governor. “You can arrive in Amananth with great fanfare and give this matter the full weight of your official consideration. You can be bureaucratic, sympathetic and indulgent without actually signing anything. You can make indefinite promises with vague timelines. Then with the press cameras rolling, you can get in your ship and leave. It’s what we politicians do,” said Rebenios, and then the governor’s image abruptly vanished.

Chapter seventeen – Rendezvous

Bengaley was seated in the seldom-used passenger seat in LordSid’s fighter, his own ship floated a few yards away in space. “NeoFX told me he was out here mining, and thought he saw Sid’s ship heading for the gate to this sector.” He shook his head wearily. “Even so, it took me long enough to find you.”

“Thanks a mil, Bengaley.” Newtron popped the top on a can of wine and refilled his friend’s glass. “The point was to get as lost as I could.” He waved towards the bulkhead, “With all the bounty-hunting pilots out here, I couldn’t take a chance hanging around near a gate to see if you’d come by. As it was, you just about gave me a heart attack when you nudged your tow into this ship; I was a little indisposed at the time.”

“Find Sid’s inflatable girlfriend, did you?” asked his friend with a grin. “By the way, LordSid’s going ballistic. I honestly think they had to tranquilize him or something. He said he’s never setting foot in an Octavian station again.”

Newtron shrugged, “He’s insured.”

“No,” Bengaley said, “he’s not. Not against theft he isn’t. And the hangar crew said they’re not responsible for acts of vandalism, so he got stuck paying to have your purple paint scraped off.”

“Really, not against theft?” Newtron the fugitive looked genuinely concerned. “Seems like a pretty big loophole.”

“TRI said they only insure against loss in space,” said Bengaley, the STCC Field Inspector. “Sid said he’s gonna try to sue Oct Core for not having better security.”

Newtron shook the last few drops of dark red liquid into his plastic cup. “I’ll make it up to him,” he said absently.

“How?” asked his friend seriously. “Are you planning on robbing a bank next?”

At that, Newtron refocused and peered sideways at his friend. “Why no, I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers.”

“No loans,” said Bengaley firmly. “Not to pay off debts to ease your conscience, anyway. You need something to tide you over that’s different.” He paused for a moment, then, more seriously added, “You know you had me scared there, it seemed like you really went nuts,” then smiling again, “or should I be speaking in the present tense?”

“There’s a difference?” asked Newtron. Then, he too became serious. “No, I was crackers all right, I don’t know what happened; it sort of made sense at the time.”

“Not now?” asked Bengaley.

“I can’t believe that was me making those weird statements,” said Newtron. “Seems like it was all another person now.”

“Oh it was really you all right,” affirmed his friend. “I recorded all those press statements you made, if you want to see them.”

“No, no,” Newtron put up a hand to fend off the offer. “They showed them to me in the hospital, over and over and over…I mean that wasn’t like me to say all that stuff. All those reports, the statements to the press, the research stuff — such as it was — graphs, charts, phew! So much work, it makes me tired just thinking about it.”

Bengaley smiled. “Well, you are one lazy guy, I’ll give you that. You know if you put half the effort into work that you put into avoiding it…”

“It’d be richer than you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” Newtron finished the sentence for him. Then, “It had to be brainwashing.”

“What?” his friend looked incredulous. “You have a close encounter with a psychic eel out there?” he waved in the general direction of space. “Anyway, the TRI doctors said you got Wynar’s syndrome.”

“Then how do you explain the fact that I’m back to normal?”

“Define normal.” said Bengaley. “Maybe that Rastamon scared you straight.”

“Or maybe he was the one who brainwashed me in the first place. Anyway, what was up with that?” asked a bemused Newtron. “Shows up out of the blue and busts me out, slick as snot.” Newtron was quiet for a moment. “Ever see him?”

“Rastamon?” the Field Inspector sat up straight. “No, and I hope I never do. I’ve sort of grown accustomed to breathing.”

Newtron looked thoughtful. “Really looks like a pirate. I don’t mean any stupid costume either, I mean his eyes — that look of his.” He shivered involuntarily.

“So why did he help you escape?”

Newtron shrugged. “Thought I was a brother-in-arms I guess, at least till he got a good look at me.”

“So, what now?”

Newtron turned to the com screen and started typing, “I need to find a xenobiologist.”

“You are a xenobiologist.” Bengaley reminded him.

“No,” replied Newtron, “I mean a real one.”

Chapter eighteen – Developments

Rastamon’s fighter hung in space like an armor-plated paper airplane. The fighter had a certain presence, and it was a menacing presence. Ordinarily, its menace was directed towards other pilots trying to flee from it in their ships, but at the moment there were no other ships around.

A pervasive sense of dread emanated from Rastamon’s ship and it was directed, in this case, towards a very large inanimate object — a series of enormous metal rings, connected by a long heavy beam. A number of navigation warning lights on the “beacon” blinked on and off, and the structure glowed to indicate which faction controlled it.

Unfortunately for Rastamon and probably fortunately for the beacon, its on-board computers were not programmed to sense menace or dread. Had they been, the beacon would have been vibrating in fear.

As it was, the waves of doom, for that’s what they had by now morphed into, washed over the electromechanical structure like a soft summer breeze over a field of golden wheat.

With deliberate casualness, Rastamon stretched forth his hand and clutched the joystick before him. With an almost sensuously elaborated motion he wrapped his fingers round the control and placed his index finger on the trigger. Rastamon took more time than necessary to align the beacon in his cross hairs, and then he paused — his head tilted slightly as if listening to some distant voice.

Far outside the fighter’s radar range, the Sentient too hung motionless in space. Its attitude mirroring that of Rastamon’s fighter. Titanic energies pulsed and surged along the notochord that ran from the flux’s power source to what might have been a transmitter or receiver, and at that moment, it was entirely focused on the space pirate.

#

Brotherhood squad members Radi, Lakota and Gogo flew through the vacuum of space. With a series of flashes, they emerged from the Jump Gate and proceeded in the direction of the CLAWS beacon. Each piloted a Typhoon-class fighter — deadly white things, aerodynamic in an overly dramatic way considering the fighters’ medium of operation. The three pilots had been traveling for a while, but now they neared their destination and glided smoothly up to join the Typhoons of Brotherhood pilots Lego, Tesrend and Spork, who were holding station near a beacon here in Conflux space.

Spork opened a radio squad channel as the new arrivals took up positions nearby.

“Right on time gentlemen,” the squad leader said by way of a greeting. “Brothers Lego and Tesrend are in the middle of a competition to see which of them can kill the most big Conflux before the end of the shift.” Then Spork switched to address the two apparently absent pilots, “And the winner is?”

“I got me two mantas, an eel and a nautaloid,” answered Lego as he pulled his fighter up to stop near the others.

“Brother Tes?”

“Three mantas and a nautaloid,” answered Tesrend closing from a few thousand meters off. “And a kraken.”

“Well, it seems we have a winner,” declared Spork. Then turning back to the new arrivals, “And the beacon is yours gentlemen; try to keep yourselves occupied. You’ll be relieved at 0600 hours, and Ambrosius expects reports on the hour.” Then he added, “Happy baby sitting.”

With that, the three sleek white fighters fell into tight formation, turned toward the Jumpgate and accelerated off. As they dwindled in the distance, Radi radioed to the exiting pilots, “Hey, just how boring was it? This is flux space, you guys see anything weird out here?” he asked, anticipating the long boring shift.

“Just your hairy arse,” answered Lego, moments before his ship vanished through the Gate.

Turning back to face the beacon, Radi let out a sigh. This was such a waste; he hated the idea of the hours of monotonous sentry duty. At least he was flying with his buddies, and he’d never spent much time exploring Conflux space. “Alright,” he addressed his companions, “I’ll fly a pattern at 50,000 meters from the beacon, Brother Lakota — you do one in the opposite direction at 25,000. Brother Gogo — you’re here on station. I know it’s going to be tough, but try to keep your eyes open.”

“So did Ambrosius say how long we were going to be baby sitting these beacons for New Dawn?” asked Lakota.

“I guess the deal was to give them time to find out who’s been tampering with them and figure out a way to make them stop,” answered Radi.

“That could take a hell of a long time,” complained Gogo, “we could be pulling this duty for weeks. And if everyone knows we’re out here keeping an eye on these beacons, no one’s likely to come round to mess with them. Weeks of sitting on our hands, shooting the occasional flux that wanders by. This is not what I signed up for.”

Radi also felt like he was wasting his time. Maybe this was important stuff, but he sure couldn’t see the value of it. And if it was really such a big deal then why the heck wasn’t New Dawn out here, keeping their own watch on these things? He was getting steamed just imagining the long dull shift, and really hoping some bad guys would just try to make a move on the beacon this shift, because he really felt like killing someone.

#

Rastamon woke from his reverie; his ship’s sensors indicated that something had appeared in the sector — visitors. Odd, they weren’t coming from the direction of the Jump Gate. Rastamon’s fighter was partially cloaked with a powerful ECM, he didn’t think the other ships could sense his presence, so he could afford to wait and observe the new arrivals.

A trio of Octavian heavy fighters had entered the sector, turned and were making for the beacon. He read their ship ID’s; none of the pilot names were being broadcast. That was something he’d never seen before, could be a useful trick to learn, but then why hide your identity? Weird. But oddly, the three ships all listed the pilot’s squad affiliation, even though the pilot names were being blocked; they were still being identified as members of the Foundation squad.

From long experience as a fugitive, Rastamon unobtrusively maneuvered his fighter over to a nearby asteroid then settled in behind it to await further developments. The ECM would protect him from sensor scans and radar, but the asteroid would shield him from a casual visual inspection.

As the trio neared the beacon, they slowed, then stopped. One of the big assault fighters now moved in still closer, inching up to the enormous transceiving unit. The fighter stopped now, and deployed a pair of remote mechanical-arm manipulators; Rastamon had never seen a fighter equipped with those before either. The Dragon cautiously moved within reach of the beacon. It seemed to be working at a panel, trying to remove it to expose the internal hardware; why?

Rastamon was content just watching the elaborately decorated fighters, brown with yellow flames stenciled on the wings and fuselage. Under the magnification of his camera’s telescopic system, he could make out whatever it was they were trying to do. He’d let the three get on with whatever they had in mind — they were at extreme range, but that would hardly be a problem with the telescopic sight. He carefully realigned his target reticle, on the closest ship, Nova cannons on stand-by, a trigger-twitch away from releasing their controlled mayhem.

The Sentient was watchful as well, the mind behind it intently observing developments as they were unfolding, momentarily content in this passive role. It recognized that the one invader intended to destroy the three new arrivals, though at this point why it would want to do that was still a mystery. Many Conflux were killed in attacks on the invaders — that was never questioned. It was the imperative — attack at all costs, never give up — many Conflux were thus sacrificed to study the behavior of the invaders, though the invaders still remained a mystery. Some of the invaders fled, some fought, and some even hunted the Conflux while yet others avoided them — no apparent logic.

The Sentient — a kraken type, ignored the new arrivals and concentrated on the fighter that attempted to conceal itself. This invader’s behavior was even less predictable than normal. Why would this being undertake to kill its own kind? This wasn’t an altogether alien concept to the flux. When a Conflux unit went bad — started behaving erratically — as in the case of many of the unstable variety of mantas, their disordered thoughts reverberated painfully through the hive; they would then be put down, to avoid polluting the “mind” of the Conflux. But they would be destroyed quickly, efficiently, without the drama the invaders engaged in when they killed each other.

Suddenly the Jump Gate flared three more times and three new ships appeared. For a few moments they seemed to hesitate, no doubt scanning the sector immediately before the gate, then, they apparently spotted the interlopers, turned their attention in the direction of the beacon and raced to investigate.

Spork, Lego and Tesrend of the Brotherhood — in this instance the ship ID system was functioning normally and their names and affiliations appeared on Rastamon’s targeting system. Evidently, the Foundation ships had also seen them, they wheeled about and rocketed off in a loose formation. The pirate smirked as he watched the fleeing fighters hit their afterburners and head for the Aman Leap Gate. The Brotherhood fighters altered their courses to intercept, but the quarry had too great a lead and would easily escape the sector before the Aces could catch them. As the six ships shrank in the distance, Rastamon took one last look about, then nosed his fighter round and aimed for the opposite Gate; he left the sector in a far more dignified fashion.

Chapter nineteen – Meanwhile, Back at the Lab…

It was very late and the TRI-BCS labs at Solrain Wake station were mostly empty. After a few minutes of inactivity, the utility computer started shutting lights off in vacant rooms in an effort to conserve energy.

Dariel sighed and waved her arm above her head; the sensors detected the movement and the lights flickered back on. “I’ve really got to move around more,” She thought. “I’ve been sitting over these instruments so long I’m turning into a potted plant. Even the computer was learning to ignore me.”

She bent back over her notes, then transcribed them to the computer. Her neck was stiff and her back was sore from the hours she’d been at it. So much idleness spent accomplishing so little; it was very different from her youth on Hellion. Her parents had been tour-operators and they were always guiding submarine trips through the oceans. She’d been piloting a sub since she could walk; it all seemed so routine, so normal, a life of action. Now except for the occasional flight between stations, hers was a more academic existence. What would her parents have thought of these choices?

Poachers had eventually slaughtered the great ocean beasts that had roamed her world since time immemorial — her father had died fighting them. He was killed fighting for what, in the end, was a hopeless cause. Dariel had many questions about the Conflux, and was disappointed with the lack of investigation she felt had been applied to their case. This made her a source of ridicule among many of the pilot squads as well as with her colleagues in the BCS — the one place she had expected to find support. Dariel was just trying to determine if the bounties TRI levied against the flux were justified. What if killing the aliens caused them to reproduce at an even faster rate? No one had done a study to find that out. What other questions weren’t being asked, that could lead to important answers no one guessed at? She knew the Conflux were dangerous, she wasn’t an idiot, but they could usually be avoided easily enough. What had that fool in the news said? “Shooting them made them aggressive.” Probably a lot of truth in that, too.

The lights went off again and she began to raise her arm when something stopped her. She had well developed instincts from growing up on a wild planet; she thought she heard an unfamiliar sound. The sound of deliberate movement was different from random background noises, and someone trying to move quietly sounded different from someone who didn’t care.

“A young female researcher, working alone in a dark laboratory…” How cliched, she thought uneasily. Reminded her of countless entertainment thrillers she’d seen.

A faint scraping seemed to come from around the corner, the sound of a foot, moving slowly on a dirty floor. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, but she quietly slid off her stool and lifted a heavy microscope stage in a single smooth motion, and without a sound, melted into the shadows next to the wall. Perhaps it was time to put all that pilot-school combat training they’d put her through to the test; she grinned nervously remembering how stupid she thought they were for a spaceship pilot.

Light from the hall dimly illuminated the far side of the room. Long dark shadows from the tables and cabinets hid much of the floor, small red and yellow lights indicated idle equipment. She was beginning to think she had imagined it, that she was overreacting, when it occurred to her that the computer hadn’t turned the lights back on when she’d gotten up. Dariel pressed herself back against the wall.

A shadow appeared from around the corner and all the blood seemed to drain from her legs. She raised the heavy stage in her right hand, then looking down, realized how useless a gesture that had been. There, she saw a foot inches from her own — as shiny, angular and quiet as a machine tool — the mechanical foot was the most frightening thing she had ever seen. Then, looking up, she found herself staring into a pair of unblinking black lenses.

Chapter twenty – Plans

Deep in the cold, airless, star-filled abyss, hundreds of millions of kilometers from the nearest planet, billions from their home worlds, two ships hung nearby each other as if huddled together for comfort, which in the case of the pilots inside was true.

“So do you know any real xenobiologists you can call?” asked Bengaley.

He was huddled into a small passenger seat in the cockpit of the sleek, white deadly fighter. The question was directed to his friend Newtron, sitting in the pilot’s seat an arms length away.

“A couple,” answered Newtron, “but none that wouldn’t turn me in for the reward the moment they saw me.”

Bengaley gazed around the cockpit and tried to think. The com screen displayed its usual messages;

KTRI: KLATCHES HOLD IS IN GREAT NEED OF WATER. KTRI: A SWARM HAS ENTERED C-1095 FROM C-2201.

Then a more ominous message appeared;

KTRI: A PILOT WITH A BOUNTY FROM YOUR FACTION HAS BEEN SPOTTED IN THE LIGHT CROSSROADS.

“Hey that’s you!” he blurted. Then, “That’s not good. You can’t stay here anymore; some hot bounty hunter will be around in no time.”

Newtron looked glum as he contemplated a future of running through the sectors, a few gates ahead of incarceration.

“I might know a couple,” suggested Bengaley.

“A couple of what?” asked the fugitive, his mind elsewhere.

“Xenobiologists,” answered Bengaley. “They might be willing to help you.”

“Really, why would they?” asked Newtron sarcastically.

His friend ignored that. “Well they’re good people, friends of mine actually.” He paused for a moment, arranging his thoughts. “One’s a little weird herself and the other’s a dolphin.”

Newtron grinned at that, “You mean Delphince, the Conflux whisperer?”

Bengaley responded, “You’re in no position to be critical of any help we can get you. Anyway, he might have some insight into your condition; he’s pretty bright.”

“Well I’m feeling much better already.”

“So the rehab really helped after all, huh?” asked a mildly surprised Bengaley . “All that stuff that Dr. Hycche talks about in the press for treating Wynar’s?”

“No, it’s total crap!” declared Newtron. “Pure torture. I think they do it just for the fun of it. Actually I think Rastamon scared it out of me — shocked me back to reality. Ya gotta love that guy.”

His friend leveled his gaze at him, “You are nuts.”

Ignoring that, Newtron continued, “So who’s your other friend, the weird one?”

“A Solrain pilot named Dariel,” replied Bengaley.

The desperate fugitive blew a raspberry. “Nope,” he said, “she already thinks I’m an idiot.”

“Then she must know you well,” responded the field inspector.

“She’s a goody-two-shoes-save-the-whales type,” answered Newtron, ignoring the jab.

“That was you just a few weeks ago,” said Bengaley.

“Yeah, but I had an excuse,” replied Newtron, “I was delusional. She really means all that stuff if you read her reports.”

“Did you?” asked Bengaley a little impressed.

“She’s kinda cute,” answered Newtron, “thought it was worth at least reading something she’s written. Never would’ve worked though, she’s one of those serious people. Plus, I’m sure she thinks I’m an idiot, like I said.”

Bengaley rubbed his chin and thought some more. “Well,” he offered, “maybe if she hears your story, she’d appreciate your predicament — Delphince too. He’s always saying he thinks the Conflux are telepathic and all. Maybe that’s how the brainwashing thing works. What kind of help are you looking for anyway?”

“Something like that,” answered Newtron brightening slightly, “some incomprehensible psychobabble that will give me a plausible, or at least confusing excuse for my behavior, and won’t involve anymore of Dr Hycche’s torture treatments. Something that will help me clear my name, get rid of this stupid bounty and maybe gets me my commission back.”

Bengaley shook his head in wonder. “They’re not magicians. What you need is a good lawyer, a couple of good lawyers.”

“Can’t afford ‘em. Anyway, I did what I did, or rather said what I said. It’s all there on vid. Lawyers might keep me out of jail, but not out of the asylum. No,” he mused, “it’s gotta be expert xenobiological psychobabble no one can argue with because no one can really understand it. Something plausible that will explain how I can be magically cured now without anymore rehab. And something that will help keep me from spending the rest of my life as a freakin’ fugitive, hiding out here among the asteroids. Maybe these friends of yours are the ticket, at least if you’re in really close with them and they’d be willing to help.”

“Little problem,” said Bengaley as he tried to stretch without bumping into the low overhead, “you escaped from a secure TRI facility in the company of a known terrorist and you stole a ship; they’re gonna lock you up the moment you get anywhere near a station. Heck, every pilot you see is gonna want to take a crack at you to get that bounty; you’d be lucky to make it half-way to Solrain. We’ll have to see if we can get them to meet you out here somewhere, that’s if you don’t get ganked by some pilot first.” He thought a moment, then, “Do you think you’d run or stand and fight?”

Newtron shrugged. “Run definitely. I’m only marginally better in a dogfight than you. I’d get my butt kicked. Especially in this ship”, he waved generally around at the unfamiliar spacecraft, “I’m used to my old Phoenix.”

‘Makes it kinda tough to arrange another meeting with the beacons always giving my location away.” Continued Newtron, looking around the unfamiliar cockpit. Then a smile started to develop and spread across his features. Bengaley had seen that smile before and was suddenly gripped by a sense of unease.

“You know, they’d have a harder time catching me if I’m not in this ship.” Stated Newtron.

Bengaley shrugged, “Well I can’t take you back in mine, they scan all incoming traffic. They’d spot you before we ever docked and the guards would be waiting when the doors open .”

“That’s right,” mused Newtron, “can’t use your ship either.”

Bengaley’s sense of unease had turned to one of confusion. “You gonna put on a spacesuit and swim there?” he asked. “It’s only about 200 million kilometers.”

“No,” answered his friend, “I think I should arrive in a pod.”

Bengaley shook his head. “Won’t work either, they expect you to get shot out here; I’m sure they have your picture plastered all over the pod-retrieval platform on Oct Core.”

Newtron shook his head, too. “But, I wouldn’t be going to Oct Core. LordSid is a Solrain, and this is Sid’s fighter, so the pod will go to a Solrain station. And since Dariel and Delphince are both Solrain, it would be perfect!”

Bengaley shook his head harder. “They know you stole Sid’s ship; they’ll have your picture up at the retrieval platform at all the Solrain stations too — same result.”

Newtron’s smile lit up as he had an epiphany. Bengaley’s sense of confusion now turned to one of dread, “Yeah, but I’ve got an even better idea!” said the fugitive.

“Oh no…”

“Beng, you’re Solrain too, they wouldn’t expect me if I arrived in your pod.” said Newtron.

“You want to switch ships?” Bengaley was shaking his head pretty hard now. “No way, plus they’d still spot you the moment they popped the lid. You’d still get grabbed.”

Newtron’s smile was growing maniacal, “Not if I had a diversion.”

Bengaley felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and he started shaking his head pretty violently. “I don’t like the sound of this.”

“Beng, it’s perfect! If I showed up in your pod and you showed up in Sid’s, they’d be so busy with you, thinking your me, they’d never give me, in your pod, a second thought!”

Bengaley thought he was in serious need of a chiropractor as his head-shaking started to include his whole body. “God no! You’ve got the wrong freakin’ pilot, pilot! Plus it would never work and you’d just get me arrested, too. Forget it Newtron, not gonna happen, no way! What do you think they’d say if they saw me in your…er…Sid’s pod anyway?”

“Nothing, Beng. You’re a boy scout, probably never even had a parking ticket! You’re not the one with the bounty. Probably ask you a couple of questions and you’re out of there. You could say I stole your ship.” The smile came back. “Meantime, the hourlies are so busy with you, they ignore me and I’m halfway across the station before they even start to look in my direction; it’s perfect!” Newtron jumped up and banged his head on the roof.

“No, it’s stupid!” retorted Bengaley. “And there are limits to our friendship; losing a ship and taking a pod ride home is not part of the deal.”

“Why not?” asked a more subdued Newtron as he rubbed his head. “Your ship’s insured, so is Sid’s. This way he gets all his money back, everybody’s a winner.”

“Forget it.” declared Bengaley crossing his arms.

“Why? What’s your problem?” asked Newtron genuinely confused. “You got a load of priceless artifacts in your cargo hold? Afraid your insurance premiums will go up? You probably never had a claim in your life; one little boo-boo’s not going to effect your rating very much.”

His friend didn’t answer.

“Look,” started Newtron, “if it’s the money, I’ll pay you back, if I ever get access to my bank account again.”

Bengaley shook his head. “It’s not the damn money.”

“Well, what then?”

The STCC Field Inspector bit his lip and looked down at the floor, then back up to Newtron. “I don’t like those damn pods,” he said quietly.

“Eh?”

Bengaley threw his hands in the air, “I’m afraid of pod rides, OK? Little flying coffins, those things are dangerous; you hear about accidents all the time.”

“Really?” asked Newtron, “I’ve never heard of any. Anyway, I’ve taken dozens of pod rides, never bothered me.”

“Ah ha!” Bengaley pointed, “Maybe they have and that’s your problem! And you know I heard that they don’t really know how those things even work.”

Newtron recognized his friend’s problem and tried to be reasonable. “Beng, they’re safe, trust me on this. I wouldn’t ask you to do something that wasn’t safe.”

Bengaley burst out laughing. “Really? And a rendezvous in unregulated space with a wanted fugitive in a stolen spaceship is your idea of safe? Then I’m really in trouble!”

The Tale Continues …

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