THE SAND CLAM
by THOMAS PETER MCCARTHY
ou’re a liar!”
Stephy winced and inched back a few steps as she felt the hot spray of the boy’s accusations against her face and the eyes of fifty other children needling her, trying to discern the truth for themselves. This had been a mistake. She’d thought that they were in search of someone to look up to, a sign of hope, a folk hero. Better one of their own than an adult, since their teachers treated them like stray dogs.
The frail girl glanced around at the other orphans as they ringed the courtyard in a bustling semi-circle, their backs to a great blooming orange tree that was enclosed in a suit of barbed wire. They were all dirty and anxious, their faces bulging with fear and anger. Some of them hadn’t slept much these past few nights because of all the sirens and gunshots, haunted by rumors of a breach in the wall. Stephy had seriously misjudged the situation.
What they’d really been looking for was a scapegoat.
Nonetheless, she steeled herself against the boom of the bigger boy’s voice. “It’s the truth.”
Geoffrey Cobden seethed, his face an organic painting of malice. “You’ve never been outside the walls! The Venome would have mummified you!”
Stephy felt Zoie drift guardedly to her side, staring daggers back at Cobden. She thought that he might hit her if the situation escalated. Both of his parents had been killed only a year ago in a night raid, which was why he’d been thrown in with the rest of them. Rumor had it that his family had lived in a real house on a platform mound in the northern hills, but that the city had confiscated it to garrison additional Tripathi troops stationed along that section of the wall. Every morning he woke early, walked the grounds, and stared out from the barracks’ watchtower toward his old home, which may as well have been on the moon.
“You’ve never set foot in the desert before,” Cobden repeated. “Take it back or I’ll pound your skull in.”
Stephy wanted to tell him that she understood his pain, that her parents had been claimed when she was very young, but she knew that would only incense him.
“How would you know where she’s been?” Zoie demanded.
“Shut up,” the high-born boy smoldered.
Still, defiance radiated from her dusky cheeks, even as the hulking twelve year-old boy loomed over her, his knuckles as white as chalk.
“I discovered how the Tripathi leave San Triest to scour the desert.”
“They don’t leave the city,” Cobden grumbled broodily. “There’s only death outside these walls. Nothing else lives. I think you’re lying. You’re making it all up.”
Already in way over her head, she decided to push the envelope further. “I can prove it.”
A hush fell over the courtyard.
“So prove it!” Cobden answered menacingly.
Stephy hesitated. “Tomorrow. I’ll bring back something from the desert. I promise.” Turning, she faced the other children, who were arranged before them like a jury. “I’ll show all of you.”
No one spoke. Then the main flock of children suddenly parted as the headmaster pushed her way through like an angry farmer punching a path through his corn shucks. Dressed in black garbs, with a large wooden cross dangling around her neck, the mistress effortlessly scattered them by barking a few curse words in some alien tongue the teachers called Spanish.
Ducking behind a tool shack at the far end of the courtyard, the two girls watched breathlessly as Cobden searched the fleeing children for any sign of them, eventually resigning himself to retreat. Zoie crouched close to Stephy, monitoring the fluid look of apprehension on her face.
“Is it true? Have you been over the walls?”
Stephy shook her head in defeat. “No.”
After the orphans’ barracks had fallen into a deep and pensive silence, Stephy rose from her bunk and glided out into the night. Tripathi guards used a hidden set of concrete stairs behind the barracks to reach the catwalks above. Right around lights-out, the guards had moved southward along the wall, towards a new set of solar lights that suddenly blared out across the desert. The lights were huge, the kind that they’d used to generate night games in sports stadiums generations ago. The wind turbines and solar fields didn’t generate enough electricity to protect the entire diameter of San Trieste, so the lights were rationed at periodic intervals in order to keep the Venome at bay, the rotations changing erratically.
Stephy pitched her elbows against the rails of the catwalk and studied the desert floor more than eighty feet below her. Wind flicked pebbles along the ground. Shadows diminished and then reformed like running watercolors as the floodlights flickered unpredictably, the edge of the formless desert constantly rippling and recoiling. Passive darkness in all directions, otherwise. Grainy silhouettes moved at the edge of the black soup, three or four hundred feet away, where the radiated light died in an uneven line across the sand. Only a few stars winked through the bleary light pollution. Behind her, San Trieste coiled westward in a curvy river of industrial factories and heavily fortified battlements. Thick columns of red-clay pueblos carved their way through the heart of the city like arteries. To the north, pinkish-violet light polluted the inky horizon, giving form to the residential hills that high-born orphans like Geoffrey Cobden had once called home. Grand mansions poked into view, built atop carefully sculpted platform mounds. Old Bojana, the mistress of histories, said that the First People had lived in such a way.
For a long while, she stood and watched for any sign of the Venome, secretly eyeing a metal cage a hundred feet south of her. It was a mechanical lift that lowered directly to the base of the wall, behind a series of unmanned bulwarks. By way of this ancient elevator, deserters, rapists and murderers were condemned to exile in the desert.
A death sentence.
Somehow, the idea that Stephy clung to didn’t seem quite so crazy. When dawn spilled across the horizon, the desert would reveal itself in luminous red tints that would send the creatures burrowing back into their subterranean nests. Perhaps, before the other children woke, in that one right hour when the Tripathi relaxed and were no longer on edge after surviving another night on the wall, she might climb down in the lift and try to pilfer a plant or--
A humanoid form materialized at the corner of her eye, imprinting itself like a two-dimensional character against the darkness of the desert. For a moment it stood there, frail shimmers of faraway light carving its mass out of the black, granting a wordless menace to it shape.
Then a second silhouette stepped into view beside it.
“Stephy,” a voice whispered. Though, she knew, there was no way that she could hear a whisper from such a distance, above the frail whip of the wind. It was only a trick of her mind.
You’re not real, she pleaded adamantly with herself.
Then they were gone. No more real than reflections in a murky pond.
And with that, Stephy resigned herself from the wall, any thought of tempting fate with the Venome absolutely erased from her mind.
The world outside of these walls might have belonged to man once, but no more.
Stephy rose early and evaded the other children, hiding in the garden courtyard outside of the barracks. Surely enough, Cobden would come looking for her sooner or later. And when she failed to produce tokens of her last night’s promised adventure, he would bloody his fists on her face, and the other children would watch approvingly. The little liar exposed for what she was and punished appropriately.
When a shadow drew across the grass, she started. But it was only Zoie, not one of Cobden’s youngling spies.
“Are you alright?” She asked, squatting on the brown grass beside Stephy. They were enveloped by the soupy shadow of the orange tree.
Stephy shrugged, feigning indifference. “No big deal.”
Zoie looked worried, but then her expression morphed into bewilderment as her eyes drifted from her friend to something else. “What’s that?”
Stephy turned, but saw only the orange tree sitting bullseye on a circular tablet of concrete paths branching out to all of the entry and exit points of the garden. The tree’s lean stem and curvy bushels were protected by a mushroom cloud of barbed wire.
“I don’t--” She began, and then halted as she spied something odd.
A portion of the wire had been clipped away, exposing a knothole in the bark. A dull oblong of sunlight rubbed off on something inside the tree. The two girls hurried over to discover what it was.
A glass jar was wedged inside the knothole. Air-holes punctured the rubber lid. Inside, they found a small creature. Too big to be an insect. It was about the size of Stephy’s palm. She’d never seen one before, but she recognized it from her biology texts.
It was a frog. A white desert frog. The creature’s pale hide was rough and scabby, but also slimy. Stephy had been under the impression that frogs were green and lived only in swamps, so this came as quite a shock.
“Where--” Zoie began, and then the paddling sound of feet on the cobblestone path whipped her around.
Geoffrey Cobden and a dozen older boys marched into the courtyard. Distantly, Stephy could see another platoon of kids choking off the entrance. They didn’t want any adults to see what was about to happen. But whatever the emotionally scarred bully had in store for the little girl who dared brag about her imaginary adventures beyond the wall, it all seemed to dissipate the instant he laid eyes on the glass jar.
Cobden stammered to say something as the other children swarmed around them, admiring the frog. Zoie held the jar up while Stephy entertained the kids with a wild tale about how they’d evaded Tripathi up along the catwalks and then slipped down into the dark of the desert, dancing away from the sluggish Venome all night until dawn’s light spilled through the blackness and they returned to San Trieste with the their slimy treasure.
When she was finished, she handed the jar to Geoffrey Cobden. “This is for you. I want you to have it. Call it a peace token. I know you’re going to be a very brave soldier in the Tripathi one day. Maybe a scout. I’m sure you’ll see plenty of these yourself.”
The older boy hesitantly accepted the gift, casting a suspicious side-eye at Zoie. Perhaps she’d been a little too enthralled by Stephy’s nonsensical story. Either way, he seemed to relent, a gentleness sinking through his cheek bones as he skulked off, the other children giddily following him back to the barracks.
The girls collapsed on the grass, writhing with laughter, teasing each other with anticipations of the violent fate that they’d narrowly escaped, and what more might come of their mysterious benefactor.
More did come in the days ahead. For five straight days the girls sprang from their bunks just as the last inkblots of nightfall were rubbed out by the morning sun and raced to the courtyard to discover that a new treasure had been left for them in the hollow of the orange tree.
The first was an infant cactus in a pot of rich black soil. Zoie stubbed her finger on one of the needles and spent most of the day greedily sucking on it, still happy in her discovery. On the second day they found a polished coyote skull. A few boys claimed that it was a dog, but most of the children saw that the teeth were too sharp. The third day the girls were nearly disappointed when they slipped into the courtyard early, only to discover that the knothole was empty. But a gust of wind refracted off the barracks’ gambreled roof and snatched up their slippery present from where it lay hidden behind a wall, tossing it across the courtyard. A tumbleweed, fully formed. The girls laughed thunderously and chased it back and forth across the cobblestone paths until their legs were weak. On the fourth day they found a nest of twigs and black feathers encumbering three eagles’ eggs, hardened to pure stone. Last was a basket of rattlesnake skin. The sheddings looked boiled down. There were enough of them to make a suitcase out of.
Stephy and Zoie gave the basket to the other children, as they had done with all of the other gifts, watching as they ran off, flailing the snake skins above them like kites. When they had gone, the courtyard was suddenly filled again, this time not by the other children, but guards.
The Tripathi. Rifles strapped across their backs and clubs in their hands, the city guards weeded through the stragglers, pulling each one momentarily aside so that they could search their faces.
Stephy towed Zoie away, realizing that something was wrong. But a familiar voice cried out toward them. “Over there!”
Geoffrey Cobden was standing at the head of the Tripathi and jabbing a finger toward them. The girls ran for the secret passageway in the south end of the courtyard, through the lilac bushes, but they didn’t get more than twenty steps before the Tripathi swarmed them, their crimson capes fluttering in the wind, their banners of brilliant sun-light cast outward.
Stephy pleaded for the Tripathi to state the charges, but the captain of the guard, a grizzled man with a hairless scar running jagged across his scalp, slapped her hard on the mount and ordered manacles placed on both of them. With cold iron around their wrists, they were dragged through the streets of San Trieste. Hordes of screaming denizens tried to fight their way past the Tripathi to rip at the girl’s clothes. Finally, they were taken down into the brig of an old oil tanker that was beached in a dry riverbed on the east side of the city. Fossilized barnacles lay crusted upon the rusted steel, nearly turned to ash by centuries of sunlight. Down they went, deep into the dungeons of the ancient ship, their footfalls cracking wood and cringing metal, until colonies of black mushrooms poked up out of cracks in the mudden floor and the air fouled beneath the stench of oil and human grease. So deep they descended that it seemed that the ship had been reclaimed by the earth, deep deposits of black soil--likely left behind by the boots of countless Tripathi guards over the years--hiding the stairwell and catwalks from all sight, like a film of volcanic ash.
They were thrown into a dark cell, one of the guards murmuring that he’d left them as a meal for a chained Venome. With a hard clang, the door fell shut, trapping them in a pitiless void.
Stephy found Zoie in the pitched black and held her close, stifling her whimpers. “It’s alright,” she whispered. “He was lying. They don’t keep any Venome behind the walls. It’s too dangerous.”
That seemed to quiet her, but Zoie remained frightfully anxious. “But why did they drag us down here? Why were those people yelling at us in the streets?”
“I don’t know,” Stephy admitted. “But I’m sure they’ll realize that it’s a mistake once they talk to us.”
She steeled herself as she felt poor Zoie rubbing her head furiously into Stephy’s chest. “I’ll make them understand.”
Hours were days in the dungeons. Finally, when all of their tears were spent and the girls had begun to wonder whether they’d been left to die down here, the door to their cell was thrown open, the starry lights of lanterns like daggers in their eyes.
A rather modest-looking man brought a chair into the cell and propped it before the girls, plunging his ass down onto it. A lantern bobbed fitfully beside the man’s grizzled face, illustrating the skeins of old wounds, and a dark bronze complexion which Stephy found quite unfamiliar.
“I’m Captain Fujimoto,” the man said slowly. “Do you know why you’re here?”
The girls clutched each other and shook their heads mutely.
“I want to know where the breach in the wall is, how you found it, and how long you’ve been using it to leave the city.”
Stephy’s heart dropped. Both girls were doomed, the victims of an irony so rich and cruel that she thought she that might weep hard enough to fill the dry river bed in which their ship was stranded.
“No, you don’t understand,” she stammered faintheartedly.
Without warning, the light failed as the Tripathi guards swung the lanterns behind their backs. Fujimoto lurched forward and slapped her hard across the face, his lightning quick dexterity and hostile intent cloaked by the darkness.
The lights came back and Stephy recoiled, her left cheek a frying pan.
“Don’t lie to me again.”
The captain removed something from his tunic and thrust it toward them.
It was a coyote skull.
Stephy sank inside of herself. “Please, you must understand--”
“Five of my men were ambushed and killed while patrolling the south wall last night. The ones that weren’t torn apart reanimated and killed three more. The others disappeared beyond the wall. That’s the fifth attack in two weeks. I’ve lost over twenty men. Several more were infected and are missing, probably hiding. By the time we find them, they’ll have turned. This is all your doing.”
“No,” Stephy protested faintly, terrified that he might hit her again.
“Why!” Fujimoto yelled. “To impress your little friends? To gain a few trinkets!”
“We didn’t have anything to do with it!” Zoie found her voice suddenly. “We found those in a hollow in an orange tree beside the orphanage. We don’t know where they came from or who left them here. Please, believe us, we’ll show you! I would never go outside the walls. I’m terrified of vamp--”
Too late, Stephy realized her mistake. Anger flushed through Fujimoto’s dark cheeks. Before she could react, the captain sprang to his feet, the coyote skull clenched tightly in one hand, and the lights were suddenly doused again.
She couldn’t see it, but she was lucid long enough to feel the walloping blow when the captain clubbed her across the head.
The universe was a dark featureless void, save for the shrillness of Zoie’s scream.
“Stephy, wake up.”
On some level, she was aware that her arm was draped over someone’s neck and that she was listing forward, her feet dinging off the metal and leaving drag marks in the soot. Thoughtlessly, she followed after a small lantern that weaved through the blackness like a wayward star looking for planets to environ it.
But some were already in orbit. Three planets?
Stephy. Zoie. Someone else--
She passed out.
A familiar voice popped Stephy awake.
“Another lemon cake, Zoie?”
A second followed closely. “Yes ma’am.”
Stephy craned her head over the bedsheets and was immediately dragged down by a wicked pain in her forehead, the world a soupy blur. After a moment, her eyesight cleared and the pain lessened considerably.
When her senses returned to her, she realized that a woman was standing over her. A black woman, the only black woman that Stephy had ever seen, with a big frilly afro and thick eyelashes, delicate cheeks and lips as red as cherries. She wore a black cloak with a green-lilac vest. Her leggings were pale silver and she stood a few inches taller on Tripathi war boots.
It only took the girl a moment to put the pieces together in her mind. “You.”
“Yes,” she said with a thick, radiant smile. “And I’m sorry for all of the trouble it’s caused you. I didn’t realize that things would get so out of hand. I’m afraid that the blame belongs squarely with me. Unfortunately, I’ve become a self-inflected leper over the years. I’ve grown more fonds of these books than the children I endeavor to teach them to.” Bojana gestured toward the impressive library that encumbered them. Stephy hadn’t noticed it up until that point, but all of the walls seemed to be made of bookcases. “I sequester myself in these stone quarters most of the day and seldom leave other than to teach the histories of the old world to you and the other orphans. And I too was once tormented by boys twice my size. So when I heard little Geoffrey challenging you in the yard, I simply couldn’t contain the devil in me.”
Old Bojana smiled wickedly and Stephy found her own smile for the first time since the Tripathi had taken her from the orphanage.
“I got the idea about hiding the trinkets in the tree from a book I found right here, in this keep,” Bojana said with a wry grin. “Unfortunately, you wouldn’t recognize the name. The Tripathi never approved it as a part of the curriculum.”
Stephy stood and felt cold stone beneath her toes. It sent a shock through her body. Her eyes lingered toward the table where Zoie ate from a small basket of deserts. Hesitating, she turned back toward Old Bojana.
“The captain of the Tripathi believed that we opened the city to the Venome because of the artifacts that you placed in the tree. How did you come by them? Are you responsible for what’s happening?”
“Of course not,” Old Bojana said with a disappointed countenance that made Stephy blush from guilt. Zoie paused in her famished eating to observe the conversation.
The teacher of histories smiled. “Oh, it’s alright child. I understand why you’re frightened. What’s happened was inevitable. Sooner or later, one of the guards would fall under the spell of a fallen loved one and open the gates to let them in. I’m afraid that San Trieste is doomed to suffer the same fate as El Diago.”
Stephy rumpled her forehead at the unfamiliar name.
Bojana smoothed her expression pensively. “I was not born here, child.”
That was impossible, the young girl thought disbelievingly. There was nothing outside of San Trieste. Or at least that’s what the teachers said--
“Mistress?” She asked perplexedly.
Bojana nodded pensively. “I traveled here across the desert and the mountains. More than a hundred miles. A long time ago. I was the last survivor of a mountain city much like this one, called El Diago. It was across a great river called the Rio Grande, in a land once called Mexico, that is now called nothing, because no one dwells there any longer who remembers its name.”
“How did you cross the desert?” Zoie asked, momentarily setting aside her hunger. “Why didn’t the vamp--” she tailed off, then recouped herself. “Why didn’t the Venome get you?”
“You were right the first time,” Old Bojana said balefully. “There were two-hundred of us when the journey began, and they swarmed us like sharks. Our numbers quickly diminished. A handful every night for three or four weeks. One day I came across a desert tortoise. Oh, it was a fat one. Enough to fill a little girl’s belly for three fortnights. I was starving. Never mind that this creature looked like the ugliest, slimiest thing I ever did see in my life. When I saw it crawl out from behind a rock, I dashed over in a heartbeat to snatch it up and put it between my teeth. But it retreated back inside its shell and bit me when I reached it to pull it out. That was when I realized that I was the same as the turtle, trying to evade monsters whom wanted to eat me. That’s when I had an epiphany about my own nature, and what I would have to do to survive in this world.”
A gunshot rattled the silence of the room. Distant. Other side of the city.
The girls stared breathlessly as Old Bojana moved to the windowsill, her steps anxious and hurried. Lifting the curtain, she stared out into the half-light of dusk and then let it fall back into place.
“Did you bring the artifacts with you when you came here?” Stephy asked, trying to quiet the panic rising inside of her.
Old Bojana nodded, turning away from the window. “I collected them along the way.”
“Are the lights all going out?” Zoie asked, tears beginning to well in her eyes.
Bojana gave no reply to this, settling down at the table and fetching a lemon cake to chew on. Stephy detected an uncharacteristic waver in her ancient, steely hands as she shoveled the food down.
The manner in which she consumed the deserts seemed eerily reminiscent of a condemned prisoner devouring a last meal.
“One thing that I discovered, after the fall of El Diego,” she said, hungrily scarfing down a fat slice of honey cake, bits of powder stamped on both cheeks. “--was that the difficult part was not the journey itself, but leaving behind everything that I loved. It was a necessary evil. A mechanism of my survival. There is never enough room for anyone else. A fleeing prairie dog does not look back to see if its friend is ahead of the coyote’s teeth.”
There was a boom in the distance and cries of anguish.
“Are we safe here?” Zoie asked, her voice haunted with tremors of fear.
Old Bojana nodded her head. “From the Tripathi. They’ll be busy tonight.”
“It won’t be much longer, will it?” Stephy asked demurely.
The teacher of histories did not answer, as if disappointed by the question. Perhaps she had anticipated another.
“Where is your turtle shell?”
At this, Old Bojana smiled. And Stephy knew that she’d asked the right one.
The two girls spent three nights in the mistress’s keep. On the last night, right around midnight, the lights finally failed as a storm of gunfire and blood curdling screams erupted throughout San Trieste. Windows rattled from the jarring force of canon fire. Within minutes, the Venome were everywhere. They swarmed like bats. The cobbled streets below were so slick with blood that victims were made of those hapless fools that were caught out in the open and tried to climb over the piled dead to escape their pursuers. Hill by hill, building by building, parapet by parapet, the city fell to the enveloping blackness of the desert, which at last refused to be shut out.
“Quickly,” Old Bojana pleaded, beckoning Stephy toward a room at the top of the keep, above a spiral staircase.
The teacher went to fetch Zoie from the window as the explosions drew nearer. Stephy turned just in time to see the wooden door smashed apart and as the first Venome lumbered through. Bojana stepped directly in front of it as its eyes swept across the room, searching for potential victims. It was a hairless creature, entirely naked, talons in place of hands, its skin blued by loss of blood and oxygen--by death. The creature’s inhuman maw opened wide, like a bass’s mouth, revealing fangs as long as fingers.
The mistress made no sound as it fell upon her, accepting now the fate that she had long denied herself and felt no particular grievance in receiving, the same cruel fate having befallen all of her friends and family over the years, along with most of mankind.
Zoie did scream, though. There were more of them. They smashed through the windows and swarmed the library, knocking books from the shelves and fighting over the old woman’s corpse. Half of them were reanimated Tripathi. Stephy grimaced as she caught a glimpse of Geoffrey Cobden perched atop a book shelf, hungrily scanning the room with his yellow eyes. Zoie eluded her pursuers, racing to the stairwell. But Stephy couldn’t wait for her. She darted up the twisting stairs, slipping once and banging her chin on the iron. She tasted blood in her mouth, but pulled herself up and staggered on.
But she couldn’t. As she reached the top, she felt the stairwell buckle beneath her as a dozen of the creatures mounted it in pursuit. She spilled through the door to the attic and lumbered breathlessly toward the back, groping in the dark for the thing that had saved the mistress’s life. After all of the bullets had run out and her friends had been lost, with her own family chasing her through the desert, howling her name. One morning, the young black girl had stumbled upon a cemetery. There was no food, no water, no weapons, no medicine. Nothing that could seemingly save her from her fate. All that she found in a small shack at the top of the cemetery was a shovel.
When Stephy found what she was looking for, she did not hesitate. Behind her, she heard Zoie panting and crying as she reached the top of the keep, the monsters crowing after her, falling over one another as they ascended, half of them freshly reanimated.
Stephy lifted the lid free and then pulled it shut the moment that she was inside.
There was only room for one.
From afar, the yellowed eyes of the Venome watched the halting progress of the desert clam. Moonlight cast a dull shine off the hood of the coffin at night. During the day, it moved grudgingly across the sand, leaving a long shallow trench in its wake. Those slimy creatures that the Venome dared not feast on--snails and turtles, as the humans once called them--even they moved with greater agility and speed than the clam, which gained no more than three-hundred yards of ground each day in its futile trek across the vast emptiness of the Nevada. Once in a while, they would find a discarded pile of animal bones, the flesh picked clean, and they would know the thing inside the coffin was responsible, for Venome tasted not flesh but the red goodness that flowed beneath it.
In the darkness of the desert ocean they plotted, digging traps for it in the sand. When that failed, they violently upended the coffin, battering it with hard stones and digging their claws into its creases. Still, the clam’s path remained undeterred, its shell impregnable, its meat untouched. Sometimes, at night, a young Venome would caress the outer casing of the clam, whispering a name, demanding answers to questions that the rest could not perceive. In the end, she always skulked back into the blackness, vanishing with all of the others into the depths of the sand as the sun curdled above the mountains.
Every morning, the clam pried itself open at dawn and dragged itself across the sand, gaining another few hundred yards, its clever master beholden to a single horrifying truth.
That in a world where the dead walked, the living slept in coffins.
Thomas Peter McCarthy is a poker player and fiction writer from Atco, New Jersey, with a BA in literature. His favorite three authors are Stephen King, Dean Koontz and the late, great Elmore Leonard. He writes primarily horror/suspense, as well as a smattering of science-fiction, fantasy and crime. An extensive collection of his illustrated stories can be found at www.beneathblackbridges.com. His short story Safe Distance appears in the June 2014 issue of HelloHorror.
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