ix: A male writer’s treatise on when it’s ok for your woman and non-binary characters to use the c-word. (William Regal, screaming ))WGWG(( forever.)

All this isn’t to say that the situation can’t get quite grim for certain localities, and for not-insignificant lengths of time. When whole generations dwell within periods of easy cruelty and mass death, so too would it be cruel to dismiss their plight and resulting perspective. The cynicism of men like Petrarch, which can be read as repressively antique outside of the context of their own histories, still possesses the air of the authentic, nursed by the profound psychosocial trauma in which they were saturated. 

Dead empires inevitably give birth to power vacuums, and the resulting prolonged churn of ideological and material desperation harnesses the engines of suffering, resulting in the generation of novel epistemologies. These latent new philosophies of mind – modern ideas like humanism, fascism, and proletariat revolution – then gestate, mature, and finally bear fruit in centuries to come.

But while that eventual pay off may prove historically significant, there’s no denying the high price of the initial cost. Rome’s fall was catastrophic, a violent hemorrhaging of fifteen hundred years of political and social culture, along with countless generations of technological invention and evolution. The Imperial Core of Rome had solidified to the point of becoming bone-dry and brittle, and when that massive tower of gilded catlinite shattered, the resulting shrapnel spread itself far and wide – rather than being entombed with its empire, Roman technology, although fractured and piecemeal, managed to escape it.

It would, in fact, be appropriate to look at Rome as a popped blister rather than a crumbling edifice, a necessary excising of a pus-filled boil that had managed to infect the face of the Western world, colonizing and consuming until, inevitably, the pustule burst under the weight of the totalitarian demands of eternal growth. And when it popped, so too did the kite string, and vast technologies, now unmoored from the grim and binding firmament of empire, could not help but bleed out into the wider world, changing it inexorably, yet ultimately casting it in empire’s long and smothering shadow.

“What the hell’s an Ark Encounter?” Etch says. 

“One of the weird places dude hunts down and drags us to in Reality to satisfy his kitsch fetish,” Picky answers for me, which I suppose is just as well – it’s a pretty accurate description. “Another roadside attraction, more a rotting corpus than a corpse, with apologies to Tom Robbins.”

“I understood that reference,” I say, imagining the Steve Rogers dot-jif in my head. “No need to apologize to him, though. I’ll never forgive him for his detached defense of Osho in Esquire. Prick.”

“I can definitely buy that you’re the kind of guy who’s never believed in something enough to poison a salad bar,” Etch says, and somehow, coming from them, it’s a solid roast.

“That’s hurtful,” I reply. “And it wasn’t Tom Robbins playing babytown frolics bioterrorism, it was the goddamn psychopath Osho put in charge of goddamn Rajneeshpuram. Tommy-boy just got a big kick out of it.  …Hey, I’d poison a million salad bars for something that was worth believing in, but sure as shit not an aloof psychopath like Ranjeesh.”

“Oh shit, ‘looking for something real to believe in’ guy has entered chat,” Etch says, continuing to tap away on that little slide out keyboard. “Here to tell us all about the specific conditions under which he might actually live up to his heretofore hypothetical beliefs.”

“Picky, Etch’s being mean,” I whine. “Make them stop being mean.”

“Y’know, on one hand I hate all gurus and personality cults with the burning passion of a million suns, but on the other hand, Jitterbug Perfume was a pretty good read when I was twenty-three,” Picky shrugs. “Guess I’ll keep allowing you both to have personal agency. The hell is the Kid?”

“Taking a slash,” I say, regretting the sound of the phrasing immediately. “And presumably finding other ways to waste time, considering he’s been gone about eighty hours.”

“There was probably a klan rally in the gents,” Etch says, really leaning into their vocal fry. “Or was he more of a neo-nazi?”

“The ideology you would have most closely associated with the way my beliefs were bending would be “christian identity,” the Kid says, quietly sauntering up to a visibility unimpressed Etch’s side. “Although, of course, I wouldn’t have recognized it as such at the time.”

“I’m pretty versed in the neo-pagan-to-white-supremacist-gang-member pipeline, thank you,” Etch replies. They’re probably not exaggerating. The neo-pagan content in the store is limited, but has always been an issue with the type of clientele it attracts. Beyond that, It’s unfortunately a real thing around this part of the Drop, for reasons I fear we’ll get into.

“Again, you’re welcome! It’s so nice to really be understood once in a while,” the Kid grins.  “Shall we get the fuck out of here?”

“I think that’s probably the appropriate course of action,” Picky sighs. “Etch, are we good here?”

“Heckz, you have the fort held down?!” Etch calls out to their co-worker, and while they don’t look up, their voice is full of an insincerity that’s more treacly than their usual sarcasm. Heckz, a shorter, even more dour looking woman than Etch, is now busting ass behind the counter. Business has picked up again, but Etch doesn’t seem to be worried about it, considering they aren’t even bothering to look up at the scene.

“Yeah, fort secured, colonel, I’ll be sure to keep the natives at bay while I’m plundering their resources,” Heckz hollers in reply; the bit reads much more “fuck-you” than “ha-ha” in the room. “You acting like I have a choice about it  just makes it worse, though, thanks!”

“You always have a choice,” Etch says, now looking up, although Heckz isn’t returning their glare. “This shithole store exists in an at-will district, meaning you can leave any time with no penalty, and you definitely should, not because you’re not great, but because you obviously are.” Etch does compliments either really well or is just the worst at them.

“Starving is a weird kind of ‘no penalty’!” Heckz calls out as we turn to leave. “I’m not sure if you’re the worst boss I’ve ever had, but you definitely are the most totally fucked in the head!”  Etch gives a gentle wave over their shoulder, already back in their phone again, their momentary sliver of earnestness suitably snuffed.

“Don’t call me that, I’m not anyone’s boss!” they holler as they begin to walk away.

“Bullshit on that one, boss! Good night!” Heckz replies. “…and just because you don’t actually have the power she pretends to assign you, doesn’t mean you still don’t bully the fuck out of me!”

“That’s some straight-up bottom behavior, oh so shocking, coming from a Pisces!” Etch says, once we’re more or less out of ear shot.

“Nice to see the work environment here is toxic as ever,” Picky says, as we depart from the clutch. “And that your management skills are still razor sharp.” 

“She works hard enough, but she’s a pain in my cunt,” Etch says. “And I am not a manager here; I fell for that bullshit once, I’m not gonna have pretend authority that evaporates once the capriciousness of the boss deigns to check me, fuck that.”

“There’s a certain charm to knowing your place, I admit,” Picky replies.

“Cool condescension, Picky, you sound just like the old hag,” Etch says, in a languid drawl, their fry practically immolating the room. A long, heavy moment of quiet descends upon us as we cut back through the reading partition, following Etch’s slightly ambling but confident lead as they navigate the store while looking at their phone.  

(I’ll say this for the external screen gimmick, it at least shows you’re focused on your feed. A clear sign of non-intention is as important of a signifier as one of certain intent, if my three weeks of college-level semantics taught me anything. Lots of people just wander around in-feed, staring dead-ass forward, and you can’t tell until they walk into a wall or off of a platform and into the abyssal Underground, or more often knock someone else into it while they barrel through their semi-memorized paths. Seriously, it kills like 20 people a year.)

As we make our way back through the cluster of reading tables, I see the book that I’d previously glanced at (and somehow got an attitude from) has moved, and is sitting there, open, immediately beside our current path… just from side-eyeing it, I can see from the fact that there’s more text this time that it’s turned to a different page…

 …I use no small amount of willpower to avoid looking down at what it says as we pass it by. If someone isn’t fucking with me, which is the likely and sane scenario, the words are incidental, and if someone is fucking with me, they’re going to have to try harder than that.

“You know, I apologize, that was out of line,” Picky says, as we move through the musty air of the fire pit, passing through its crackling, virtual flames.  “Hanging out with these guys has made me really overly feel myself today. Y’know, by comparison.”

“Hey, don’t blame us for being master-level stuck up,” the Kid says. “It’s a finely honed craft. You’ve for sure satisfied Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, with change to fuckin’ boot.”

“I can sniff out Picky’s insincerities without your help just fine, thanks,” Etch says.

“Wow, the third thanks of the night, and so I politely return a third “you’re welcome!”   …I really feel like we’re starting to become friends.” the Kid replies. “And yeah, you’ve known Picky longer than me, so I imagine that you’ve had just a shit ton of practice in dealing with her fuckin’ nonsense.”

“Can I protest here?” I pipe up at Picky, finally feeling that steady simmering of annoyance over being a man with unshared opinions, finally and inevitably boiling over into a full-blown need to start explaining things (as men do.) “I get that you’re showing off for company, but considering how sore you get in being “lumped” into any collective groups that one could criticize, it’s shitty to throw me under the bus along with the Kid.”

“Yeah, feels bad, doesn’t it,” Picky says, tapping her temple and flashing me just the wryest fucking smile, then turning back to Etch.  I genuinely don’t know exactly what she’s referring to, but i suppose what’s important is, she does. “Anyway, sure, I respect your position. Get her money while you can, then bail, right?’

“Always have an exit strategy,” Etch says with a shrug, and then puts the external phone into one of their many pockets. They pick up their pace now, as we pass into the bowels of the store, dark and still. This is where L’Excuse leaves the realm of the L’mystical, and more closely resembles a shitty college town headshop. In fact, there used to be a case with glassware back here for a few years, before it became apparent that keeping an extra person on staff to follow prohibition regulations wasn’t worth what it was bringing in. 

Here’s one of those places where the detritus of capital collects, and although in the Junk Arcade you could fairly say that about almost anywhere, White Room included, there’s a purity to the stale demeanor here, with products that feel as if they’re from another era, and may very well be. Here are ephemera from the pop-media monoculture heydays of rock and rap bands and weed pride, a glut of posters, t-shirts, lighters, knives, car fresheners, shot glasses, plastic whos-its-and-whats-its galore, boxes of Nag Champa, a rack of CDs and even a few bins of thin-pickins vinyl records that no one would probably want to steal. 

 It’s the kind of place you’d find in Any Collegetown or tourist trap USA, tucked back in this place because commercial space needs to be filled with some sort of bullshit, and at one point this kind of thing had some cache amongst the more diverse crowd who hung out here, before a lot of the freer flowing money dried up in our system’s latest few economic collapses. There are actually a couple dudes back here now, looking through the shirts, so it isn’t as if this world of commerce is totally dead. But it definitely has that stench of stale incense and soul sweat.

We walk through a curtain-wall consisting of strung up tie-dyed flags, a mixture of rock and pagan imagery printed upon them, and end up in the asshole back-end of modern boutique retail. Even a place as large as this doesn’t do enough business to have any sort of up-to-date inventory system, so it’s basically piles of random shit back here, and one might think in a store like this there’d at least be some interesting junk lying around, but it’s literally just fucking boxes kind of stacked on each other, in some sad attempt at basic organization. 

All of the interesting stock that’s in the store has probably been on the floor for years at this point. Again, questions of how it financially survives exist but aren’t really my purview; no matter how much l listen and learn, there will be lots of worlds closed from myself and my understanding, and that’s ok. I guess. 

I take a final glance up as we leave the store proper. The star-field ceiling, which is currently displaying the skies above Wewersburg castle on March 29th, 1945 (tasteless for a couple reasons that I’m not even going to get into,) is an effect that works really nicely when you’re nearer to the center of the room. But the illusion starts to fail spectacularly here toward the edge, as the hard delineations of the AR stars laid over our feeds clash garishly with the bunched-up black plastic tarp that actually makes up the ceiling’s material, fully visible here thanks to safety lights on the upper walls, causing the stars near the wall to stretch in garish ways and then vanish. 

“You coming?” Etch says, her head poking through the door. They’d already opened it up, and Picky and the Kid are well past the threshold, their argumentative voices echoing down the hallway. “It’s fine, either way, if you wanna stick around and ponder Nazi occultism.”

So Rome fell, its remnant constituents collapsing into a centuries-long struggle over those two old stand-bys of human conflict: stuff and dreams (or as some people might put it, territory and ideology.) The complex hierarchical institutions that had maintained Roman technology, both as physical specimens. and as a sort of cultural intellectual property, were utterly decimated, and like a cracked, cancerous egg, the mucilaginous ochre of obscured knowledge and trade secret contained in those institutions gushed forth and metastasized, slabbering through borders and speckling across cultures, flooding the entire world with mechanical theories and philosophical viewpoints that had been locked down for literal ages.

When Rome fell, it would be both metaphorically and literally correct to suggest that a good deal of it crumbled into the sea, to wash up on distant beaches. The Mediterranean was both a vital incubator for the thick rind of humanity that congealed upon its sandy borders, as well a vast and open highway, it’s crossings and connections creating a massive wetware circuit which possessed its own kind of RAM and ROM memory, showing a plasticity in self-organization and the ability to route around damage, much like an advanced biological brain.

Europe was temporarily out of order, in the sense that it could no longer maintain any kind of systemic control over the mind of the sea. Rich chunks of data tumbled from the continent, splashing into that deep and wide body of knowledge, catching the pull of the eastern tide. Thus the East were primed to take on that extra information that Europe couldn’t hold on to, with great relish and pleasure. The continent, of course, retained a great deal of the knowledge, even as it was enduring its long age of intense migration and transition. Some of this cultural tat even managed to cross over a thin channel then known as the Oceanus Brittanicus and reach a tiny, profoundly backwater set of islands on the very fringes of the known world; a rough place full of rough men and of very little concern to anyone, once the Roman governorship was properly and roughly purged.

Etch shuts the utility door behind us and locks it up, then stands there for a moment and sighs, inexplicably choosing right now to reveal a slight vulnerability.  …Feels like a trap. 

“Hey, look,” I start, even though I know I’m just going to talk too much and ruin everything. “I didn’t program the sky back there, I wasn’t admiring some bullshit story about Nazi wizards, I was wondering what the hell whoever programmed it was thinking, or, like, if you’ve got some sort of actual fascists working here.”

“I know you weren’t…” Etch’s sympathetic tone sounds almost exactly like their sarcastic one, but I choose to believe, for just this second. “And yeah… I’m pretty sure we do.” For a moment, they look tired as fuck. Then they pull out their external, and exhale with a thin whistle, resetting into their detached countenance as they do so. “Hey, y’know, you’d be a lot more appealing as a person if you talked less.”

“You’re not the first to point it out,” I say, with a sad smile. “But nervous chatter’s just what I do… like, pretending to be someone you aren’t to score social points is a drag…”

“Yeah?” they say, casually strolling past me. “So why do you do it in every other way, then?” I let it land without reply… I honestly don’t get people like Etch enough to really understand how they regard the world, and sometimes my frank and honest rebuttals have deleterious effects on social situations that end up making things even more difficult… 

What I mean is, I’ll gracefully, and with great poise, allow Etch be the asshole here, because honestly I’m a really vicious piece of shit when it comes down to it, so I know if I wanted to compete in that category against them, I’d probably win, and the victory would almost certainly be pyrrhic. 

They hurry down the hallway toward the other two, perhaps feeling slightly guilty for picking on the Aspie… Picky and the Kid are pretty far ahead of us, their clomping gaits echoing down walls of the off-white hallway. 

I take a closer look at the drywall panels; they’re stained a yellowish, smoky ochre, almost as if by repeated exposure to torchlight, and just about every other panel has spiderweb cracks running through it, with tiny chunks removed at syncopated intervals that suggest, but do not prove, design. 

There’s the expected bit of graffiti, but most of it is pretty lame and trivial, more bathroom stall than slow train, save for occasional carny tags, which are always multilayered and complicated to look at because they’re constantly in a state of being painted over either by staff or rival carnies.

It’s a bit gross and ugly, the definition of run-down, but it would be otherwise utterly unnoteworthy, except for the fact of its conspicuous length: neither end is visible from where we stand, giving it the uncanny air of infinity. I know, or at least my memory is telling me, that this particular hallway is about four miles long, which is quite far from infinity, but pretty absurd for a hallway, even on the Drop. 

Other than that, it’s got that authentic feel of the commercial and routine, a place that nearly broaches normality, at least when compared to the byzantine labyrinth that makes up the Backstage. This is the kind of utility corridor that was built by humans, for humans, and thus possesses all the normal human charms of rote function and utility (that is, none.) But it’ll save us some time, for sure. 

The Inner Skirt’s contorted architecture, on the other hand, is quite the opposite, this close to the Carnival, where it lies practically on the pleasure city’s reeking, braying doorstep  ts one of those uncanny, twisted masses of multi-tiered prominades and carpeted halls, heaped upon and around one another apparently haphazardly, with no apparent design that sometimes occur in zones of intense commerce, due to a mixture of lousy planning and weird money shit.

It was a layout designed by real estate sharks years ago, when the Carnival was less entrenched, specifically to keep tourists and other passers-by out of the city for as long as they could, in order to wheedle the most cash out of them. It worked well for a very long time, allowing for a commercially diverse experience (lol) separate from Carnival affairs; a bit of diversity that allowed places like L’excuse and the Logic Gate to exist in the first place. 

But now the Carnival has nearly perfected all of its schemes to funnel people right past the parts of its immediate exterior it doesn’t yet fully control, in order to get a stronger grip on the local Tokenflow.  As a result, large swaths of a once-vigorous network of complex capillaries of capital have been decimated, like towns that don’t get exits on the new highway. This has made getting around the area a boring, somewhat depressing slog. 

These maintenance and employee tunnels carry their own sort of ashen melancholy and ennui, but at least it’s much quicker to get through them than having to navigate the interior exteriors of the Inner Skirts… if you know where you’re going, of course, because there are multiple tunnel networks that criss-cross each other without actually intersecting, for reasons that I’m sure were clear to someone, at some point, a long long time ago.

I give my feed a quick scroll-thru as I hurry to catch up with the group; nothing interesting in messages and nothing coming in hot off the wire.. I sent an Arrested Development reference to LC like an hour ago and dude still hasn’t responded, better be real important to leave me on read on an Egg joke (her?)… the cats on REMOTE, or at least the portions I inhibit, are still buzzing about Supercourt repercussions while also having this hour’s discourse battle, which seems to be something about whether or not the term “praxis” is classist, so I nope the fuck outta that window and saunter over to see if anyone has anything open to group.

The Kid has his shit totally locked up as usual, and Etch doesn’t even show up on the network… that kind of ghosting is pretty illegal to do in public, and thus another reason to like Etch. 

Picky, however, has her top feed public, and seems to be taking in as much as she can of the latest high-gloss bullshit the media’s shoving out the door as news, all at once. You have to cross-reference and infer like crazy to even get a slight picture of the context of the overall scope of a narrative these days, and that’s definitely what Picky’s up to; I count no less than sixteen different tabs she’s active in.

Seems like she’s mostly looking up geopolitics, which is always a fun and interesting time, because the Drop doesn’t have actual geopolitics, it being merely the lonely core of an empireless empire, hanging by a single thread, in a mostly empty vacuum. But the simulated geopolitical milieu of the Junk Arcade, that great game of strategy, tactics, and throwing bodies at bullets; the War Games, is still a vital, if somewhat detached, economic and sociopolitical component of life on the Drop.

The War Games… the Drop’s massive, systemic simulation of both the Great Game of geopolitics and the Great War that sustains it; a massive institution that consumes the kind of physical and psychological real estate on the Drop that far exceeds even Hain or the Rookery. It  is an intrinsic organ in the Drop’s manufacturing process, which in turn is the very backbone of its economy. If you want to produce anything in the Junk Arcade, you gotta lay down some tickets in order to keep funding the Great War effort. And that effort must be sustained forever.

An empire without an existential threat of any kind is bored, and thus likely crumbling, and so when humans have no existential threats to fear, they seek to create them. It is in this spirit that the War Games exists, to tap into the one Great War humanity must always be fighting – has always been fighting – against itself, for as long as there have been humans (consider that active combat zones have been an unceasing feature of Reality, with over sixty active warzones at any given moment, and then consider that all of these bloody battles are simply different fronts in the same war that a self-loathing humanity fights against itself.)

Once an empire begins to militarize, it initializes a war effort that does not wish to win; a war that, in fact, can not end, given that the culture of war and it’s lust for acquisition and colonization, even with its highly and supposedly simulated nature, is so deeply tied into our economic situation. Empire, like any capitalist corporation, requires insidious amounts of growth to survive, that previously mentioned choking bloom, a Red Queen race of running in one place just to keep up to end them all, in order to feed its gluttonous habits. And thus the War Games becomes maybe the most vital economic engine of the Junk Arcade. And all legally discrete from that holiest of constructs on the Drop, the Tokenflow.

So, on the most basic, transactional level, if you want to get anything out of the Maker, you first must put something into the Games. It’s been like this since well before Timem, and the prevalent ideology in the Junk Arcade is that this entire process is a self-evidently necessary evil that is inherent to the system itself, one that simply cannot be avoided by empires: even those hanging by a thin wire in a mostly empty vacuum… even those who possess no real enemies to fight.

Thus the surface-level worship of the Drop’s fighting men and women (and the massive industrial complex that arms and trains them) among the great unwashed is absolute. Among the more cynical and academic, the discourse is, of course, much less settled, and the ethics and necessity of the War Games in making the Drop livable for humanity is a matter of fierce debate. 

And on the third hand, the leadership of the Drop – those who hold the actual levers of power – are much less concerned about that kind of nuance: the fact that the Games exist, and have done so for as long as anyone can remember, while consistently producing the material resources necessary to drive the engines of imperial wealth, makes its operation and upkeep a practical priority for the state, secondary only to the protection of the flow of capital in its duties.

 And indeed, the Games’ penultimate position as auxiliary support for the continued existence and current routing of the Tokenflow belies the truth that it is the Games that are truly the the primary engine pumping that money-blood through the entire machine.That it could be any other way, in our current economic system, or any other – is up for vigorous debate online and in the halls of academia, but according to the cold calculations of those who have the opportunity to capitalize on fleeting moments of real control, its indispensability is absolute.

“Hilarious,” PIcky says, as I catch up with the other three, my heavy, clomping footsteps reverberating off of the lightly speckled beige-tiled floor. “Every single thing about this A.I.-Lizardman bromance shit is hilarious.”

“You always did have a kind of bland sense of humor,” Etch says, clearly feeling uncharitable toward more than just me at the moment. And they’re one of those rare people who can check Picky’s personality simply via some quirk in their poise.

“You don’t get a kick out of anything about it?” Picky retorts, as we make our way down the drab hall, past door after tedious door. “Hyper-egotistical machine intelligences in a delicate dance of synthesized angry-old-man testosterone and pure chaos that probably won’t – but possibly should – end the world?”

“See, it’s your dramatic nature that balances out the sense of humor thing,” Etch says.  “But I honestly don’t wanna talk about it.”

The diplomacy aspect of the Games is a bit less celebrated or fetishized than the actual war sim, but it is, on the whole, more vital than the actual grind of combat in terms of direct material impact. The fighting war is the vibrant and visible bloom of this flower, but it is the Greatest Game – one of international intrigue and treacherous tradecraft and never-ending back-room bullshit – that is the stem and the root and the soil. 

This game-within-a-game is the safer, dryer war, the war for politicians to fight, politics itself being a technology derived ostensibly to steer humanity’s intemperate passions away from open bloodshed and into the realm of mere rhetorical savagery. Funny, then, how one always seems to cycle right back into the other.

Historically, of course, the Greatest Game is a tactical contest to be played with the appearance of subtlety and care, and with at least some sort of lip service to traditional propriety. The general idea is that cooler heads at the table lead to less bodies on the field, and although it more often than not just seems to shift the bodies and fields around and parcel them out in smaller individual amalgamations, this shell game is also an important part of the process. Subterfuge is as key an aspect to the Game as either statesmanship or military superiority, and the goal of this particular portion of the Greatest Game is to keep people from noticing it’s even being played.

 Keeping things focused on at least the idea of boots on the ground, even if that ground is virtual, serves both ideological purposes and matters of expediency, as you want people paying attention to the narrative of the heroic soldier putting their body on the line, and not the exec branch spook cutting deals to, say, sell guns to one supposed enemy to fund their drug-running endeavors in another enemy’s country, all to destabilize subversive elements in their own urban centers, just to make up a purely hypothetical situation that probably never happened. 

But the Dipshit AI is not a being of tact or poise, nor was it elected to be. It is a creature of raw passions and profoundly limited impulse control, and only by constantly indulging in those traits can it continue to prove its existence to itself. 

It does this with great gusto, thanks to the brilliant minds of its creators in Hain. And as long as it behaves aggressively in this manner, it will be given a pass for all transgressions it might rack up, from those who gleefully support its current mission of chaos and grift. 

And it is with this perspective, formed by layers of both insulation from punishment and a general cultural pass to commit its specific kind of violence and mayhem, that the AI plays the Great Game, taking full advantage of the confidence its supporters and enablers provide to reinforce its solipsistic belief that it is the one and only True Player.

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